Taking the Bull by the Horns
“I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.
I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials; and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all….
...Finally, I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end; where all men and all churches are treated as equal; where every man has the same right to attend or not attend the church of his choice; where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind; and where Catholics, Protestants and Jews, at both the lay and pastoral level, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood.
That is the kind of America in which I believe. And it represents the kind of presidency in which I believe — a great office that must neither be humbled by making it the instrument of any one religious group, nor tarnished by arbitrarily withholding its occupancy from the members of any one religious group. I believe in a president whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation, or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office….” John F. Kennedy
Though it may at times be hard to discern, this Department really does have a great underlying and unifying theme, which runs through all its posts, be they about matters international or around the block.
The common thread running through all the pieces published here is that politics is really about culture; in the case of electoral politics, this means that ,when a citizen casts a ballot, he/she is making a cultural statement about his values. The understanding of this simple fact is the common thread that unites Lee Atwater, Bill Clinton, Karl Rove and Chuck Schumer.
Not understanding that fact can be an unintentional act of self-destruction. When he ran for Governor, Eliot Spitzer well understood this. Though Spitzer once helped to create a moderately right of center think-tank, and all evidence indicated he was a Bill Clinton type, neo-liberal, new Democrat, Spitzer assimilated the crucial understanding that his party was more and more driven by its most ideological activists, and endeavored to make sure he has been embraced wholeheartedly by the party’s left wing.Part of Spitzer’ success stemmed from the perception that his primary opponents, Tom Suozzi, was consistently to his right on social issues. I argued three years ago that, to the extent that the positions of the candidates would result in substantive differences in public policy as actually implemented, this perception had an issue-by issue accuracy that ranged from “not very true” to “almost exactly the opposite is actually the case”.
This was not merely a matter where the symbolic differences between the candidates trumped the lack of difference in actual practice. For every position where Suozzi’s nuanced stances (on say, abortion) indicated a deeper set of more conservative values which might have meant little on those particular issues, but which might have impacted his governance in unexpectedly conservative ways, there was a stance on some other issue, usually related to “law and order,” where Spitzer betrayed his own conservative tendencies. It seemed clear, for instance, that Suozzi would have been less likely to be swayed by prosecutors when dealing with medicinal marijuana or the Rockefeller drug laws.
But, put on the defensive, Suozzi was unwilling or unable to convey this truth to the party base, especially the liberals most likely to respond to his message of “reform”. Having been seen as failing to pass the litmus tests required for admission to consideration, Suozzi’s campaign was doomed from the start. Since the ability to communicate one’s agenda (or, when necessary, to obscure it) is a political skill of considerable value to a Governor, perhaps this alone justified the drubbing Suozzi suffered.
I’ll add, somewhat to my own personal embarrassment, that Suozzi’s stance for civil unions and against same sex marriage, seemed in the ancient days of 2006 to be hair-splitting, given the perception of what was then politically possible, but is of more moment today than seemed plausible at the time. However, the point essentially remains unchanged. Perceived as culturally hostile to the values of the majority of the Democratic Primary electorate, Suozzi was politically DOA. Suozzi, who recently changed his position on same sex marriage to one of full-support, seems finally to have assimilated this point.Thus, the recent opportunity to reiterate this point by applying its lessons to a race in my own neighborhood proved irresistible. At the time I began writing about it, the war within the Independent Neighborhood Democrats (IND) over whom they would support in the 39th Councilmanic race, seemed worthy of one article, but the olive oil separated from the wine vinegar as I was trying to write it, and it seemed to better to keep it that way, as two very different approaches to the same problem.
Recently though, the vinegar ended up reacting with some baking soda, setting off its own explosion, and raising some cultural issues of its own, thereby justifying one more go at the same matter. The specific catalysts were a letter to an editor and a piece of campaign literature, but I’ll get to them later.
I first became aware of the cultural wars in Carroll Gardens in the late 1980’s, while living in nearby Park Slope, when a local weekly ran an article about them. A young clerk working for a local greengrocer of Mediterranean ancestry was heard to complain about the young professional single newcomers in the area, who he called “THE LIBERALS.”
“THE LIBERALS come in here,” said the young man, “and they want to buy one banana, or one carrot, or one grape.” The general consensus seemed to be that “THE LIBERALS” were morning glories, who rented the second story of one’s house, got married, and moved to Montclair rather than to brave the local schools, leaving no lasting impact.
Since that time, the number of Italian greengrocers in the area has dwindled to one. Just recently, the old man who ran it, who once sold his produce from a horse cart, passed on, leaving matters in the hands of his son, who, until recently, liked to hang out a Patios, a favorite Smith Street haunt of THE LIBERALS (Patios has since moved to Manhattan).
While some of the area’s oldtime Italian restaurants still survive, it does appear that, like the Norwegians of Sunset Park’s 8th Avenue (whose final remaining luncheonette lasted a few extra years by implementing a Chinese menu), the last remaining signs of their former dominance will be the ethnically named funeral homes (Halvorsen in Sunset Park, and Scotto, Guido, Raccuglia, and Cusimano in Carroll Gardens/Cobble Hill).
The LIBERALS, meanwhile, have bought houses, made babies and set down roots. The Public School in Carroll Gardens, PS 58, still serves European immigrants, but today they come from France rather than Italy.
It is in this environment that John Heyer, a 26 year old mortician at the Scotto Funeral home, and protégé of community institution, Salvatore “Buddy” Scotto (who used a fleet of hearses to ship many of Heyer‘s elderly supporters to the IND meeting, perhaps in the hope that some of them wouldn‘t survive the trip home) has chosen to mount a race for City Council as the candidate of old Carroll Gardens.
As has been widely reported, Heyer is personally opposed to abortion and opposes same-sex marriage. Though neither issue is likely to be a matter of substance before the City Council, they do indicate the possibility that Heyer has a set of values at variance with those of a majority of Democrats in the district he chooses to run it, which might very well translate to other issues.
When certain liberals, including myself, chose to point out this dichotomy, Heyer reacted with fury, boycotting a candidate’s forum, and essentially accusing his critics of ethnic and religious bigotry.
“It’s extremely unfortunate that some supporters of other candidates have sought to make caricatures of my views, reducing them to ugly extremes. In one sense, these ad hominem attacks are simply the dirty politics we might expect from seasoned operatives in a contentious field of well-funded candidates. But taken another way, these attacks also bear the distinctive whiff of another time: an era when the anti-Catholic politics of fear prevented the immigrants who built our neighborhoods from attaining political power. Of course, we can’t know the real motives of those who mischaracterize my words and beliefs. I can only ask the voters to judge my views on their merits, and not to believe the distortions of those who seek to marginalize my candidacy for their own political gain, no matter the cost.”
These sentiments have been uttered in public and in writing by Heyer supporters, sometimes with anger and passion. It is as if Old Carroll Gardens, in its dying breathe has decided to expend its last bit of earthly air screaming about “THE LIBERALS.”
In this week’s Courier papers, one of them writes, in remarkably similar language to the, chants and bleats I heard at IND, “attempts to bring his religious beliefs into the issue is real dirty politics, and demonstrates how low these people will stoop to accomplish their sinister deeds.”
Since I am one of “these people” who’s being called a bigot here, I think it is a matter of personal privilege that I be yielded the floor.So let me say for the thousandth time, that this is not about Mr. Heyer’s religion, but about his stance on the issues. As I’ve stated before, there should be no religious test for public office, just an issues test.
For instance, I believe that all pacifists are morally unfit to hold a seat in Congress (the State Legislature or City Council would not bother me in the least) for their views on war and peace would prevent us from fighting in all wars, whether unjust or just. Surely extremism in the fight against genocide is no vice, and acquiesance to such evil is no virtue. And anyone who disagrees with me is welcome to step outside.
But, not every pacifist is a Quaker, and not every Quaker is a pacifist; Richard Nixon was a Quaker, but no pacifist (although he was, for different reasons, morally unfit for public office). But, sad to say, if someone professes to embrace a religion which is pacifistic, and has explicated a worldview which implies pacifism, it is legitimate to ask them if their political beliefs are affected by the doctrines of their religion.
No one objects when Orthodox Jews are asked to clarify their opinions on sexual orientation anti-discrimination efforts, freedom of choice or tuition tax credits; I certainly make sure to ask them such questions. And frankly, if someone wants to ask an Islamic congressional candidate their views concerning the continued existence of Israel, holocaust denial, or the proper response to 9/11, I'm not going to offer any objection. Moreover, there's a really good reason for asking, which is that, as often as not (as in the case of Shelly Silver), the candidate confounds the stereotype.
I happen to be Jewish, and I been at least as harsh, if not far harsher, on Jewish social conservatives (even when I like them), than I have been on socially conservative adherents of the Holy Mother Church. Certainly, if this were about Mr. Heyer’s religion, that surely would not be the case.Further, I spent seven and a half years of my life working for a church-going Catholic member of the New York State Senate named Martin Edgar Connor. Last year, I supported Mr. Connor’s re-election against a Jewish member of my own religious congregation, Daniel Squadron. During this campaign, I incurred the ire of many, including Michael Bouldin (who’d previously accused me of supporting David Yassky because he was a Jew) for my criticisms of Squadron’s despicable underground effort to successfully and falsely portray Connor as a social conservative, by exploiting Connor’s status as an Irish Catholic while unsubtly doing everything to exploit his own religious status, short of dropping his drawers.
There are different possible explanations regarding why Mr. Heyer and his supporters have such a difficult time understanding the distinction between criticizing a candidate for his conservative positions on social issues, on the one hand, and criticizing his religion, on the other.
Possibly, this may be because they do not recognize that there is a difference, because, for them, their religion and their positions on social issues are indistinguishable.
I suspect that this is the sincere belief of some of Mr. Heyer’s supporters, who I suspect, if, during a blind taste test, were given a spoonful of the words of JFK quoted above, would probably conclude he too was “Anti-Catholic.”
Whether this is Mr. Heyer’s viewpoint is a different matter. It may well be, or, to adopt the words of Mr. Heyer’s supporters, it may be something more “sinister.”
A month has now gone by since the IND endorsement controversy, and the one thing that’s been clear in that time is that Mr. Heyer’s 15 minutes are now over, and he is on his way to becoming this year’s Paul Bader (the charisma-challenged husband of Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez, whose Buddy Scotto-driven endorsement by IND eight years ago rendered the club irrelevant in the 2001 Council race, in which Bader ran fifth, though fourth in the IND assembly district). The issue of what occurred at IND would be all but dead and buried, if not for what appears to be an effort by Mr. Heyer to stoke it as a means of creating enough culturekampf to elect himself to the Council against a field of more socially liberal candidates.
Otherwise, why keep bringing it up? Surely, virtually no one else is even mentioning it (with the exception of blogger Mole333, but he is only doing so for the worthy purpose of trying to help Mr. Heyer drain Borough Park votes from a different liberal candidate than the one he supports). It is as if Heyer is trying to exploit the angers and resentment he’s detected among oldtimers to advance his own cause.
According to the Courier papers, “if his primary foes…split the more liberal Park Slope area, it could open the door for a possible Heyer win with the more established Cobble Hill/Carroll Gardens base while carrying the more conservative Windsor Terrace, Kensington and Borough Park neighborhoods.”
Such thinking, if not the product of an Acid overdose, could only have come from Heyer’s campaign or someone associated with it.
As to the “Carroll Gardens-Cobble Hill base,” the last oldtime Italian in Cobble Hill died in November, and his survivors long ago moved to Tottenville (besides which, they were from the faction in the neighborhood which hated Buddy Scotto). While, some oldtimers do survive in Carroll Gardens, many have long ago changed their party enrollment (though Mr. Heyer apparently made an effort, some of it past the deadline, to get many to change their enrollments back). Perhaps he thinks his endorsement by Joan Millman and Buddy Scotto will deliver to him “the Base;” he should spend some time looking at Marty Connor’s election results.
As to Windsor Terrace, unlike the Italians of Carroll Gardens, the good news is the Irish voters Heyer is looking for there have not moved to Staten Island; the bad news is they’ve gone to Jersey.The last Italian left in the Minna-Tehama Street area of Kensington is Steve Dibrienza, and the rumor is he’s going for Brad Lander. The Orthodox Jews in the district are primarily delivered wholesale, rather than retail (though if he can find them Heyer would find a few Rabbis who would respond to his message), while to the extent any Russian in Kensington cares about abortions, that interest is only in finding out where they can obtain one. Perhaps Heyer can be the favored candidates of the Islamic community (though, even there, he has competition)
So, such a strategy is probably wrongheaded, but there can be no doubt that it is the Heyer strategy. As much as possible, Heyer is trying to convey he is the “Church” candidate.
What follows is the entirety of the text of a remarkable piece of campaign literature I found hanging in the windows of some of Carroll Gardens’ more Italian oriented stores:
“This year we will elect a new Council Member.
Vote on September 15 to elect a Council Member who understands our neighborhoods (emphasis in original).
John Heyer is a fifth generation Brooklynite. He will put his knowledge of our neighborhoods to work in the City Council.
As first-time homeowners and expecting parents, John and his wife Maria share the challenges that many young families face.
A proud product of our local public and Catholic Schools, John attended PS 58, St. Savior’s, Xaverian High School and Fordham University.
John is a member of the Sacred Heart’s-St. Stephen’s Congregation and is actively involved in the following religious organizations:
* Sacred Heart-St. Stephens Parish Council Board Member. John is also the Parish Council’s Special Events Coordinator and Assistant to the Pastor.
* Cathedral Club of Brooklyn, Treasurer
* Resources of the Diocese of Brooklyn, Board of Directors
* Scared Hearts Alter Service Organizer and Mentor
* Civitas Direcotr for several Brooklyn parishes, where he organizes support for Catholic social issues.
* Friends of St. Savior Elementary School, Board Member* 4th Degree Knight of Columbus and a Knight of the Holy Sepulchre
In addition (emphasis mine), John has worked with Community Boards, served on the Boards of Business Improvement Districts, and two non-profit organizations, and led the fight to keep a neighborhood school open.
As our new Council Member, John will work to ensure that our communities remain affordable, diverse and livable for working people and middle class families.
I think that one must draw the conclusion that as regards Mr. Heyer, someone is indeed “attempt[ing] to bring his religious beliefs into the issue.”
The person making that cynical attempt, and subtly trying to pit “our neighborhoods” against those rich yuppies who are neither “working people” nor “middle class families,” and are probably not involved in “religious organizations” and surely have not been here for “five generations” is Mr. Heyer. He’s put out an entire piece of literature which talks about virtually nothing else.
This is not merely a matter of Heyer’s emphasizing a cultural connection which would come far easier if his name ended with a vowel (though he could take a lesson from the present incumbent and just adopt his mother’s maiden name).Heyer is apparently so upon delivering his divisive coded message unpolluted by contact with the other that the piece neglects to mention Heyer’s legitimate credentials of having worked for Joan Millman and Marty Markowitz
How would I explain the message-- that he does not belong in the only neighborhood he’s ever known-- that Mr. Heyer’s literature sends to my child?
Now, the three things everyone says about John Heyer are that he is a “nice guy,” and that he is “smart” and “sincere.” While the statements about those who disagree with him on the issues are not the sort of words one normally associates with a “nice guy,” nor is the tactic of trying to amplify and exploit cultural divisions, there is virtually no other evidence which refutes such an assertion.
But such statements, and others by Heyer on social issues, indicate that he may be “smart” and he may be “sincere” (and that, he possibly could be neither), but it is impossible that he could be both “smart” and “sincere.”
Specifically, Heyer’s positions on social issues, appear either to stem from ignorance and fuzzy thinking or, in the alternative, appear to be cynical attempts to frame his persona just enough to distinguish himself from his opponents in his perceived base, while trying to minimize the offense to others.
Take education. The recent influx into Brownstone Brooklyn of young families with children has created overcrowding in previously underutilized public schools. Heyer’s solution is to create a $500 tuition tax credit in the hopes that some parents will then have the incentive to take their children out of the public schools, creating more room.
It is a peculiar friend of public education who would try to help it by diminishing its constituency. Sort of like destroying the Village in order to save it.
But, even as a signal that Mr. Heyer holds the “Church“ position on tuition tax credits, it is pathetic. Even in the relatively cheap Catholic school system, $500 ain’t worth a bucket of warm holy water.
Then there is the matter of the Statute of Limitations for child sex abuse. Heyer opposes the Markey bill, which would, in addition to doubling the current Statute of Limitations, also create a one year window for any past victim to file a suit. Heyer instead supports a bill which eliminates the window provision.
Coincidentally, this is also the position of the Roman Catholic Church, whose Brooklyn Bishop, Nicholas DiMarzo, has threatened to close churches in the districts of legislators who support the Markey bill. The Church is quite fearful of the financial consequences a window may wrought.
Now there is a principled conservative argument against the window, which is that it is going to cause an avalanche of litigation concerning ancient incidents (with attendant legal costs), which are likely to be of questionable justifiability or merit. That, however, is not Mr. Heyer’s argument.
Mr. Heyer argues that he opposes the Markey bill because some of its provisions do not apply to suits against governmental agencies. He says he wants a stronger bill.
However, Assemblywoman Markey has since announced she is amending her bill to include governmental entities as well. After hearing this announcement, I contacted Mr. Heyer and asked if this changed his position.
Strangely, I have yet to receive a response.
On same sex marriage, Mr. Heyer distinguishes himself from the rest of the field by opposing same sex marriage. However, his neat distinction is he does not want to discriminate. He wants to eliminate entirely the concept of civil marriage, and leave the thing called “marriage,” as the sole property of religious institutions, so that the state would convey only to couples, regardless of their sexual orientation, “civil unions.”
There is a certain intellectual attractiveness to such an idea, provided that you don’t think about it too hard, but it really isn’t as egalitarian as it first sounds.
For instance, Heyer is perfectly content to “get the government out of the marriage business,” but he does not propose to get the churches out of the civil union business. Under Heyer’s proposal, Ministers, Priests, Rabbis and Imans would all still be allowed to convey a governmental civil union with all rights and responsibilities appurtenant thereto, as part and parcel of the marriage ceremony. But, a Judge or City Clerk could not convey the word “marriage” along with the rights and responsibilities appurtenant to a governmental civil union.
So much for an egalitarian solution. More like a theocratic one.
Has it ever occurred to Mr. Heyer that even non-religious people would like something called “marriage” to be obtainable from their government?
When pressed, witnesses say Mr. Heyer explains that church doctrine would require it to follow the rules of its host country as regards marriage. A rather learned Catholic layman told me that this is a misconstruction of Church doctrine, but though I’ve never studied the Baltimore Catechism myself, it is clear that such an argument could only be the product of ignorance or prevarication; the church does not marry same-sex couples in Canada or Connecticut, nor does it marry divorced Catholics who lack Church annulments.
More likely, it seems that Mr. Heyer just wants to have it all ways at once.
This is most apparent in his stance on abortion, where Mr. Heyer accepts that his constituents are pro-choice, and even though he is anti-abortion, he “doesn’t…have any agenda to chip away at the federally-guaranteed rights of women.”
This, of course leaves several loopholes wide enough to ride a truck through, since the “federal right” does not extend to late-term abortions, or prohibit waiting periods, forcing doctors to read patients medically inaccurate information, or protect the rights of minors. And surely, we should not expect Mr. Heyer to be in the forefront of battles involving such matters as requiring pharmacists to post information concerning emergency contraception (which, incidentally, prevents abortions).
But, it is Mr. Heyer’s mild, though effectively pro-choice hedge which most clearly implies that his positions on social issues are as much matters of calculation as they are of sincere belief.
Homosexuality, like all sex outside of the Sacrament of Marriage, is a venal sin. No one can force the church to perform same-sex marriages, and in fact, in practice, the church accepts the children of same sex partners into its religious schools---if someone insists, I can name the names of Carroll Gardens homeowners who fit into this example. The Church may oppose same-sex civil marriage, but it can learn to live with it.
But abortion is not a mere venal sin; it is a mortal sin; in the formulation of the church, it is the premeditated murder of a complete innocent (give or take original sin). If this was really about sincere religious beliefs, one would think that the issue Mr. Heyer would take the expedient dive on would be marriage rather than abortion; strangely (or maybe not so strangely), it is the other way around.
It seems unlikely that all of this absurd and intellectually insupportable posturing is really about sincere religious belief. However, if it is, then Mr. Heyer seems to be in need of some remedial education.
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