Our five selected stories cover U.S. judicial independence in a time of impeachment, President Vladimir Putin’s leadership transition plan, environmental stewardship in a time of deregulation, talking about faith with Democratic candidates, and a delightful film about “The Woman Who Loves Giraffes.”
Space is a reminder of infinite possibilities, a frontier that gives us an opportunity to shatter our Earth-bound assumptions.
Let’s take a moment to look at Maj. Jasmin “Jaws” Moghbeli. She’s a jarhead – a Marine – a helicopter combat pilot, and a graduate of the latest class of NASA astronauts. That’s an elite group of just 11 people culled from 18,000 applicants.
Born in Germany to Iranian parents, Major Moghbeli’s family moved to New York when she was 8 months old. She graduated from MIT with an aeronautical engineering degree. She joined the Marines in 2005, flew 150 combat missions in Afghanistan, and later became a test pilot.
NASA classmate Jonny Kim describes her as dependable, resilient, and fierce, in short, “the perfect crewmate I’d go into the void of space with.”
Major Moghbeli told Agence France-Presse that space is where humanity tends to “agree” and “unite” even during our disagreements on this planet. She points to the International Space Station, where Russia and the United States have worked together for two decades.
What’s next for Major Moghbeli? She could serve on the space station, NASA’s Artemis 2024 moon mission, or a Mars mission.
Consider this: The first woman to step on the moon could be an Iranian American.
A deeper look
1.As Roberts enters fray, legacy of judicial independence at stake
As he presides over the Senate impeachment trial, expect Chief Justice John Roberts to seek to embody the independence he often promotes. He doesn’t want to lose public trust in the high court by putting a politically partisan thumb on the scale of justice. Can he do it?
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After the 1999 impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton, then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist evaluated his own performance thus: “I did nothing in particular, and I did it very well.”
Chief Justice John Roberts, who clerked for the justice, will likely be studying how his former boss handled the proceeding as he presides over the third impeachment trial in U.S. history.
The institutional integrity of the federal courts, and the Supreme Court in particular, has been a high priority for Chief Justice Roberts since his confirmation in 2005. He has worked, often successfully, to craft unanimity on the high court, and has defended the judiciary’s independence from attacks by President Donald Trump. He has also never had as much power on the high court as he does right now.
A man who famously declared that judges are like umpires who are supposed to “call balls and strikes” will now have the opportunity – or the burden – to craft a strike zone that will have a tremendous significance for the country, the president, and public trust in the courts.
“It puts him potentially in the middle of this political firestorm, and he has actively avoided that kind of thing in his time on the bench,” says law professor Steven Schwinn.
It is rare that John Roberts, the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, speaks outside the courtroom. When he does make a public statement, he often talks about the same thing.
Take his year-end report, which included a familiar appeal to his fellow judges and comes ahead of a potentially landmark six months for both him and the high court.
“We should celebrate our strong and independent judiciary. ... But we should also remember that justice is not inevitable,” he wrote. “We should reflect on our duty to judge without fear or favor, deciding each matter with humility, integrity, and dispatch.”
“We should each resolve,” he added, “to do our best to maintain the public’s trust that we are faithfully discharging our solemn obligation to equal justice under the law.”
That refrain will be under scrutiny as the chief justice swears in U.S. senators Thursday in the third impeachment trial in American history. The institutional integrity of the federal courts, and the Supreme Court in particular, has been a high priority for Chief Justice Roberts since his confirmation in 2005. He has worked, often successfully, to craft unanimity on the high court, and in recent years he has defended the judiciary’s independence from attacks by President Donald Trump.
He has also never had as much power on the high court as he does right now. Since Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement in June 2018 he has been the ideological center of the court, perhaps only the second chief justice to have ever been in such a position. He is often the deciding vote in politically divisive cases – and several of those cases await the chief justice in the coming months.
For an institutionalist like Chief Justice Roberts, the political storms ahead may be the most challenging period of his judicial career.
A man who famously declared that judges are like umpires who are supposed to “call balls and strikes” during his confirmation hearing will now have the opportunity – or the burden, depending on your perspective – to craft a strike zone that will have a tremendous significance for the country, the president, and public trust in the courts.
“He is already very cognizant of the somewhat precarious state of the judiciary currently,” says Amy Steigerwalt, a political science professor at Georgia State University.
“The court is on the precipice of [several divisive cases]. He’s standing in the middle of it ... and he will have to preside over an impeachment trial while this is all going on,” she adds. “There’s a lot there, and I think it’s going to be really difficult.”
Trial by fire?
After the 1999 impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton, then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist evaluated his own performance thus: “I did nothing in particular, and I did it very well.”
Chief Justice Roberts, who clerked for the Arizona justice two decades earlier, will likely be studying how his former boss handled the proceeding, as well as how former Chief Justice Salmon Chase handled the 1868 impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson.
The Constitution mandates that the chief justice be sworn in to replace the vice president as “presiding officer” of the Senate during an impeachment trial. There are few other clearly codified rules, but one guarantee is that it will be the brightest spotlight Chief Justice Roberts has been under his entire career.
“I expect he’s not very happy about having to do this,” says Steven Schwinn, a professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago’s John Marshall Law School.
“It puts him potentially in the middle of this political firestorm, and he has actively avoided that kind of thing in his time on the bench,” he adds.
An impeachment trial is only a sort-of trial, and the presiding officer is only a sort-of judge. Any decision a presiding officer makes can be overruled by a majority vote of the Senate. The presiding officer can also refer rulings on motions, such as the calling of witnesses, to a Senate vote.
This gives a chief justice significant room to interpret the role as they wish. Rehnquist interpreted it as largely ceremonial, with his one ruling of consequence upholding an objection from a Democratic senator that senators not be referred to as “jurors.”
“The Senate is not simply a jury. It is a court in this case,” he said, in a ruling that could be a precedent his former clerk follows.
Chase was more proactive in the Johnson impeachment trial, handling the proceeding more as a normal trial and ruling on evidence- and witness-related motions, subject to Senate approval.
“My sense is Roberts will take his own path here,” says Timothy Huebner, a history professor at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. “He might actually see this as an opportunity for the court, and the entire constitutional system, to be elevated above partisan politics.”
Were he to play a more outsize role in the impeachment trial, Professor Huebner admits, the chief justice would have to walk “a very fine line.” His every move and word will be scrutinized through a partisan lens, and few things could damage public confidence in the Supreme Court as much as the perception that the chief justice has put a thumb on the scale of a president’s removal or acquittal.
This is particularly true in the social media age – and the age of the social media presidency.
During the House impeachment hearings, Mr. Trump sometimes provided explosive real-time reactions via social media. Similar reactions would be likely in a Senate trial, this time with the chief justice – whom Mr. Trump has criticized in the past – in the crosshairs.
While he did respond to Mr. Trump’s last attack on the judiciary, saying that “we do not have Obama judges or Trump judges,” the intense examination and interpretation of his actions that an impeachment trial will likely bring is why many experts believe the chief justice will keep a relatively low profile. Why should he rule on something significant, like witness testimony, that could ignite a public backlash when he could, with sound legal justification, refer it to the Senate?
“Whatever he could do to avoid that kind of a conflict he will be very interested in doing,” says Sara Benesh, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.
That in turn could advance his goal of bolstering the image of the Supreme Court as an institution above the political fray.
“Being up on the dais and sort of in charge, and then being very apolitical – which is what I expect he’ll do – might enhance the public’s trust in the court,” adds Professor Benesh.
“Especially given the parameters of the impeachment trial,” she continues, “I’m not sure he could do anything” to harm the high court’s reputation.
A blockbuster term
After the impeachment trial, the Supreme Court’s reputation for impartiality will still have several more hurdles to clear.
Recent terms have been relatively sleepy, amid political controversy over the confirmation of two conservative Trump nominees, Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. But the justices are now having to reckon with big issues and cases they had kept at arm’s length.
Last term, Chief Justice Roberts made headlines by voting with his four liberal colleagues to pause the implementation of a restrictive Louisiana abortion law while the justices decided whether to review an appeal against it.
Although the law – which requires abortion providers to have admitting privileges at a local hospital – is virtually identical to a Texas law the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional in 2016, a federal appeals court upheld it. The justices will review that decision, with oral arguments scheduled for early March. There is one key difference between the Louisiana case and its Texas predecessor: the two new justices who will help decide it. For the chief justice, that’s a problem.
“It raises that prospect that changes to a couple of members of the court can fundamentally change what is the ruling of the court,” says Professor Steigerwalt. “It puts into tension this idea that the court’s interpretation of the Constitution is free from the political whims.”
Louisiana is asking for the court to “narrow” and “limit” its ruling in the 2016 case, which held that regulating access to abortion must advance a valid purpose like protecting women’s health and safety. Chief Justice Roberts was one of three justices to dissent from that ruling, but when reviewing the Louisiana law he will likely take a more cautious approach.
“He has got to be thinking that [Texas] is a relatively recent decision, and that if the court is going to rule differently in the [Louisiana] case it’s got to have a really good, factually distinguishable reason,” says Professor Schwinn. “It may be tough to thread that needle.”
Later that month the court is expected to hear a case concerning President Trump. Unlike previous cases involving the Trump administration, such as the travel ban (which the court upheld) in 2018 and the census citizenship question (which the court struck down) last year, this trio of cases concerns the president as an individual – specifically, whether investigators in New York and in Congress can subpoena his personal financial records from a third party.
Mr. Trump’s personal lawyers are arguing the broad position that, as a sitting president, he should be immune from criminal investigation while in office. The U.S. Department of Justice has supported the president in an amicus brief, though making a narrower argument that while a sitting president isn’t immune from investigation, prosecutors should have to make a more compelling case.
“Whatever the court has to say on them will seem political,” says Professor Schwinn. “Legally I don’t think they’re hard.”
“They are politically charged to be sure,” he adds. But “in all these cases I think the authority is there to order the president to release his taxes.”
“Lip service” or action?
Chief Justice Roberts has been thinking about the institution of the Supreme Court for half of his life. He began arguing cases there in his 30s, and he has been chief justice for almost 15 years, but it is only recently that he has truly taken control of “the Roberts court.”
He has been a reliably conservative vote since he joined the high court. But now, sitting in the court’s ideological center, there is some evidence that he may, in certain cases, put the court’s institutional interests ahead of his own jurisprudential desires.
Last term – his first as the court’s “swing” justice – he wrote the court’s plurality opinion blocking the Trump administration’s effort to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, a ruling that upset his conservative colleagues and the Trump administration.
That same day he also wrote the court’s opinion, joined by his four conservative colleagues, holding that federal judges cannot rule on claims of partisan gerrymandering, a ruling that delighted Republicans.
Parallel to that, however, he has continuously worked to build and safeguard institutional strength of the Supreme Court and the federal judiciary. His year-end report was the latest explicit example. The next six months will be the latest, and perhaps toughest, test of that institution under his leadership.
“The bottom line is the best predictor for his decision-making is his ideology,” says Professor Benesh. But “he’s definitely given a lot of lip service [to the idea] that the court ... has to fight against the notion that it’s not deciding cases impartially.”
“If he continually espouses those ideas and feels strongly about that,” she adds, “we have to think they will come into play when they’re relevant for him in his decision-making over the [rest] of the term.”
2.Why Putin’s political shake-up isn’t just about power
Most outside observers of the Russian leader’s latest plan to remake the government are focused on a personal power play. But our reporter finds that Russians also see a transition play for the day when Mr. Putin leaves. It may – or may not – be more democratic, but they see a plan that offers stability.
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Since Vladimir Putin announced his long-awaited plan for restructuring the Russian government Wednesday, much Western media attention has been focused on how it will allow him to retain power after his current presidential term ends in 2024.
Under Mr. Putin’s plan, the presidency’s power will be reduced in favor of a strengthened parliament and prime minister. Also, the once-advisory State Council will gain new influence over foreign affairs.
But for many Russians, the constitutional changes are just as important for how they might enable a peaceful transition from one leader to the next – something that has always been fraught in Russian history. And while Mr. Putin will retain influence, the changes allow for a Russia ruled by representative government, rather than autocrat.
“The purpose of all this is to change the composition of power to provide for a painless transition of the presidency from Putin to another person,” says Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a political sociologist. “Whatever post Putin takes up, that’s where the center of power will be, at least in the beginning. First the new president will have to work in tandem with Putin. But gradually, Putin may disengage.”
One thing was made very clear in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s national address Wednesday: The federation’s long-standing leader isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Mr. Putin outlined the sweeping constitutional changes that would allow him to retain some power even after leaving office in 2024, by redistributing power away from the presidency to the prime minister and the parliament.
But for many Russians, the changes proposed also come with a glimmer of hope that a peaceful transition from one leader to the next may be possible – something that has traditionally been fraught with instability and intra-elite conflict over Russian history. And while the constitutional change will ensure Mr. Putin’s continued influence, it opens the door to a Russia ruled by representative government, rather than autocrat.
“The purpose of all this is to change the composition of power to provide for a painless transition of the presidency from Putin to another person” when his term expires in 2024, says Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a political sociologist who has been observing Russia’s shifting power elites for at least three decades. “What matters is not who will be the next president, but where Putin will go. Whatever post Putin takes up, that’s where the center of power will be, at least in the beginning. First the new president will have to work in tandem with Putin. But gradually, Putin may disengage.”
Planning for a post-Putin presidency
The plan that Mr. Putin outlined in his annual state of the nation address to parliament is still a work in progress. But its main elements would significantly weaken the all-powerful presidency enshrined in Russia’s 1993 Constitution and devolve significant powers to the State Duma (parliament’s lower house), including the right to appoint the prime minister and government, as well as to the Federation Council (parliament’s upper house). A somewhat weakened president would be limited to two terms of office, rather than two consecutive terms – a loophole that has enabled Mr. Putin himself to remain in power for the past two decades.
Another highly significant, but as yet unexplained, amendment would give constitutional status and plenary powers to the State Council, a hitherto obscure Kremlin advisory body that was mainly a talking shop for top leaders rather than an active participant in governance.
In a clear sign that Mr. Putin is in a hurry, he immediately accepted the resignation of the entire government and moved Dmitry Medvedev, his longtime prime minster and political partner, to a prestigious but powerless job in the Kremlin Security Council. He then appointed a new prime minister: Mikhail Mishustin, a professorial, English-speaking technocrat who has radically reformed and modernized Russia’s taxation system over the past decade, reputedly raising tax revenues by 40%.
Russian official sources say that, after a public discussion, a nationwide referendum will be held to approve the revised constitution, probably before the end of this year.
Stepan Goncharov, a researcher at the Levada Center, Russia’s only independent pollster, says that the number of Russians who say they would like to see fundamental political change has been steadily growing, from 57% in 2017 to 59% in 2019. “Real incomes have been falling, protest moods are growing, and so the pressure on the authorities to relieve tensions and demonstrate that changes are taking place is very strong,” he says. “It remains to be seen whether these initiatives are seen as effective.”
Asked about Mr. Putin’s plan Thursday, a few random Russians expressed pessimism, tinged with fatalism. “I think we are heading in the same direction as China, where everything is under the state control, nobody is allowed to speak his mind, and we are all a united and happy state,” says Natalya Omskaya, a 30-something exhibition organizer.
“If this is all about who will take this or that post, it’s a no-win situation for most of us anyway,” says Alla Anashkina, a bookkeeper nearing retirement age. “They should better think about how to raise our pensions.”
A system “more ordinary”
Most Western coverage has focused on the undeniably astonishing spectacle of a Kremlin leader wielding his undisputed authority to rearrange his nation’s constitutional furniture in order to ensure the reins of power remain in his own hands, even if he intends to eventually transition from political center stage. One of three basic options that have been under active discussion for the past year now looks certain to be implemented.
First, after his current term ends, Mr. Putin might return to the post of prime minister, which he held during the single term of Mr. Medvedev’s presidency, but with newly minted powers that no previous Russian prime minister has enjoyed.
Second, he might take leadership of the freshly empowered State Council, which analysts say will probably be endowed with control over formulating Russia’s foreign policy and commanding the security forces.
Third, Mr. Putin might succeed in his long-standing efforts to unify Russia with neighboring Belarus, and then take the leadership of a whole new state, with a new constitutional setup. It’s a deeply troubled project that has triggered passionate protests in Belarus, but talks to complete the union state have intensified in recent months.
Some Russians argue there is no contradiction between Mr. Putin hanging around in some capacity to guarantee stability, and his stated goal of redistributing power in favor of the elected parliament. Although post-Soviet Russia’s brief experiment with parliamentary democracy ended in gunfire and restoration of Kremlin supremacy in 1993, there are many who still argue that such a vast and diverse country as Russia would be served better by a representative legislature than by a single strong leader.
“Putin aims to change Russia’s governing system from that of an extraordinary situation to one that is more ordinary,” says Sergei Markov, a former Putin adviser. “We needed extraordinary measures following the catastrophic 1990s when, under Boris Yeltsin, Russian statehood was nearly destroyed. Russia needed strong personal rule, a kind of dictatorship like Charles de Gaulle imposed in France [when the Fourth Republic collapsed], because the country needed to be saved. ...
“This has by now been accomplished. Putin fulfilled this role, and Russia is strong and stable again. We can move to a more ordinary system, phase out personal power, and ensure a greater distribution of power.”
Mr. Markov disputes the view that Mr. Putin is just acting to preserve and extend his own personal authority. “Look,” he says, “if Putin wanted to be declared president for life, he could easily make that happen. But he is doing this instead. Putin wants to leave power in 2024 having moved Russia to a more institutional and collective form of government. Possibly he will continue to play a role within that collective, but the system will be changed.”
Others take a dimmer view, and argue that it’s all just smoke and mirrors aimed at obscuring the lack of genuine political reform.
“Changes in the wording of the constitution don’t mean real change,” says Viktor Sheinis, one of the original authors of Russia’s 1993 Constitution. “If the basic system remains the same, and parliamentary deputies are elected by the same means they are today, then the composition of the Duma won’t change and the appearance of redistributed power will remain purely formal. What we need is serious electoral reform, to introduce real political competition into the system. Then we might see some positive changes.”
3.Trump takes on 50 years of environmental regulations, one by one
Conservatives see unnecessary red tape that slows progress and costs American jobs. Liberals see transparency that protects the land, water, and air. Either way, the Trump administration is making a concerted effort to roll back environmental oversight.
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The Trump administration’s full-bore assault on environmental regulations has been unprecedented. And it’s taking on not just recent Obama-era environmental regulations, it’s also aiming to reform bedrock laws that have shaped federal environmental policy for 50 years.
The latest target is the National Environmental Policy Act, a 1970 law that requires federal agencies to consider the environmental impact of projects. President Trump wants to impose new deadlines on such studies and also narrow the range of what could be considered. Supporters of his proposal say it would reduce unnecessary delay. Critics say he’s launched an all-out campaign against environmental regulation, targeting at least 50 significant rules.
How far the president will get is another question. Experts say some of his changes will be overturned by the courts. “Trump is doing overreach, and getting his comeuppance in the courts,” says environmental historian Douglas Brinkley. “But it looks good [to his supporters] in 2020.”
It was 1970. Congress was wrestling with whether to give the right-of-way necessary to build a huge, 800-mile oil pipeline across Alaska, when a district judge blocked the project, using a brand new law requiring federal agencies to consider the environmental impact of projects.
“The Interior Department was stunned,” recalls William Reilly, a staff member in the Nixon administration at the time and later Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator. The law’s environmental impact statements, common today, were completely novel at the time. Even the authors of the statute, he says, “never anticipated it would have that effect.”
Exactly 50 years later, that law – the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) – is under attack. The Trump administration last week announced proposed reforms to the act that would significantly reduce its scope. It’s the latest move in an unprecedented effort to roll back not only recent Obama-era environmental regulations but also some of the bedrock laws that have shaped federal environment policy since the 1970s.
“It’s not unique in being a pushback against regulation, or even in favoring the energy industry, but it’s unique in just how relentless it has been, and how many regulations they’ve tried to undo,” says Daniel Farber, a law professor at the University of California in Berkeley. There have been at least 50 significant environmental regulations President Trump has targeted, Professor Farber notes. “They’re leaving no stone unturned.”
For Mr. Trump, who as a developer has had his own battles with environmental reviews, it’s a pendulum swing that is long overdue.
“The United States will not be able to compete and prosper in the 21st century if we continue to allow a broken and outdated bureaucratic system hold us back from building what we need: the roads, the airports, the schools, everything,” he said last week in announcing proposed changes to NEPA.
Environmental consideration versus delay
Critics of the act, who often complain about lengthy environmental reviews and the impact statements required for major projects, welcomed his proposal, which would not only impose new deadlines on such studies but would also narrow the range of what could be considered.
“This is not about anti-regulation,” says Marty Durbin, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Energy Institute. “It’s about having a smart process in place and a certain process in place, so that we can get decisions that will unlock the investment necessary to get these projects built as critical infrastructure.” If there’s no certainty about when a project will be approved, it’s harder to attract investors, he adds.
But others note that NEPA has played a critical role simply by ensuring that the environment gets consideration.
“It’s something that says: ‘Consider, reflect. Is this something you want to do? Is this the best way to do it? Are there any other ways you could do it?’” says Mr. Reilly, the former EPA administrator.
In the case of the trans-Alaska pipeline, it took more than four years of wrangling, an Arab oil embargo, and a special act of Congress before the permits were approved.
But Mr. Reilly recalls the chairman of the oil company in charge telling him that the final project was more robust and sound as a result of the environmental-review process. “In the eyes of the person most closely concerned about it, it was a very constructive intervention,” he says.
A 2016 Congressional Research Service report says critics overstate the permitting process’ effect on project delays. Insufficient data, lack of funds, and state and local issues are far more likely to increase project length than environmental reviews.
Some projects languish in permit purgatory for up to a decade, but the vast majority do not. The average length of time for a full environmental impact statement takes 4.5 years, according to the Council on Environmental Quality. Furthermore, only 1% of projects within the NEPA umbrella complete an EIS, according to a 2014 Governmental Accountability Office report.
Many people want a speedier process, acknowledge Mr. Reilly and others. And if that were the administration’s sole objective, the proposed changes would be less controversial. But by narrowing the range of projects that require environmental review and no longer requiring consideration of a project’s “cumulative” effects – which, under President Barack Obama, were expanded to include long-term climate change impacts – the administration is targeting the backbone of U.S. environmental policy for 50 years.
Beyond Obama-era regulations
Early deregulation efforts from the Trump Administration targeted Obama-era rules: the “Clean Water Rule” that defined what waters are subject to federal water protection; the Clean Power Plan, designed to regulate carbon dioxide pollution; and methane rules, regulating the release of a potent greenhouse gas. One of Trump’s most controversial actions, the legality of which is still being tested in the courts, has been an attempted reduction of two National Monument designations in Utah. And there is evidence of a significant shift toward less enforcement of regulations and policies that remain on the books.
Whittling away the government’s regulatory structures has always been part of Mr. Trump’s agenda, but his dismantling of the EPA is unique, says Caitlin McCoy, a fellow in the Environmental and Energy Law Program at Harvard Law School who tracks such changes. Changing NEPA is the latest sign that the administration wants to undermine the statutory foundations of the EPA.
“They’re trying to take away the very things that the agency relies upon to do its job and to really severely damage its legal authority to function,” she says. “With other agencies, it’s similar, like, yes, we’re relaxing some of these tax rates, but it’s not like we’re trying to keep the IRS from doing audits.”
It’s not clear how successful the administration will be.
“For at least some of these regulations, the appeals will not hold up in court,” says Professor Farber. It’s not clear in the case of NEPA, for instance, whether Trump has the power to drastically reinterpret a major law enacted by Congress.
But for Trump, the payoff politically, showing his determination to undo environmental regulations that many view as overly burdensome, may be enough.
“Trump is doing overreach, and getting his comeuppance in the courts,” says Douglas Brinkley, a history professor at Rice University. “But it looks good [to his supporters] in 2020.”
4.As Democrats grow more secular, N.H. clergy press candidates on values
In one of the nation’s least religious states, a group of faith leaders is trying to bend the political dialogue toward spirituality – and get a clearer sense of what’s in the candidates’ hearts.
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In 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama’s campaign team called on religious leaders in New Hampshire individually, according to the Rev. Jason Wells, executive director of the New Hampshire Council of Churches. This cycle, campaigns don’t seem to be wooing faith leaders as they used to, Mr. Wells says.
Yet one group of local clergy has been working hard to secure a seat at the table – arranging a series of intimate meetings with White House hopefuls. The Love 2020 participants have raced, sometimes with just a few hours’ notice, to meet with candidates in churches, barns, anywhere they can get a brief audience with the person who might be their next president. They say they’re trying to reframe what faith-based political action can look like, and inject faith-based, moral concerns into Democratic presidential politics.
“We do not talk about abortion; we do not talk about the traditional faith-based things,” said Eva Castillo, a Venezuelan immigrant who directs the New Hampshire Alliance of Immigrants and Refugees. “We show them a different face of faith, you know? More open-minded, more equalizing.”
The Rev. Jonathan Hopkins wishes every candidate for president would grapple with a troubling truth about this city: Many working people aren’t making ends meet. Some are still in their Walmart uniforms when they’re fed at the soup kitchen where he and his congregants volunteer.
Now, with the Feb. 8 New Hampshire primary fast approaching, Mr. Hopkins is finding he doesn’t have to wish quite so much. He’s part of a group of New Hampshire clergy who have been meeting with White House hopefuls, in an effort to inject faith-based, moral concerns into Democratic presidential politics. For the candidates, these Love 2020 events offer a chance to get cozy with religious movers and shakers who, they hope, might sway some of the voters in their flocks.
Mr. Hopkins wants to know what each candidate will do to break the cycle of poverty for working people. So far, he’s participated in sit-downs with Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and Pete Buttigieg, former mayor of South Bend, Indiana.
“We are asking questions that are not being asked of them in general,” says Mr. Hopkins, pastor of Concordia Lutheran Church in Concord. It’s an arena where spirituality is explored – even with candidates like Senator Sanders, who describes himself as “not particularly religious.”
“Bernie, for sure, he’s got some spiritual depth,” says Mr. Hopkins. “Maybe not religious depth, but spiritual depth. ... He said we all should care about the least among us.”
Sessions with 11 Democratic candidates and one Republican (former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld) were all open to the press, according to Love 2020 organizers. But when Mr. Buttigieg sat down with the group in early January at St. Paul’s Church in downtown Concord, campaign staffers insisted that this reporter wait outside, despite having been invited to cover the event. They gave no reason, saying only that the meeting was private.
Mr. Buttigieg, an Episcopalian, is hardly shy about his Christian faith, which he often invokes on the campaign trail as a moral guide for shaping policy positions. “What’s important to me is to make sure that I’m engaging with [faith leaders] and with those that they guide and care for,” he said after the meeting, as a black SUV waited to whisk him to a Nashua town hall event. With recent polls showing a tight race in New Hampshire, the campaign was perhaps taking no chances on a religion-charged gaffe.
Navigating the sensitive terrain where faith meets progressive politics is par for the course for Love 2020, a project of the Granite State Organizing Project (GSOP), which brings together religious leaders, community organizers, and labor unions to tackle issues such as immigration and economic justice. It’s an effort to connect clergy with candidates in a Democratic Party that’s increasingly secular and cautiously experimenting to find where faith fits, if anywhere, in its political mix.
For candidates, courting clergy support is nothing new – not even here, in what is, according to Gallup and the Pew Research Center, one of America’s least religious states. In 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama’s campaign team called on religious leaders individually, according to the Rev. Jason Wells, executive director of the New Hampshire Council of Churches. Inspired by the outreach, Mr. Wells, who was then a parish rector, volunteered for Mr. Obama by canvassing door to door in his time off.
This time around, campaigns don’t seem to be wooing faith leaders individually as they used to, Mr. Wells says.
Indeed, Love 2020 was born to fill a void, organizers say, amid a growing dearth of meaningful dialogue with candidates. Campaigns are often most concerned with preventing unscripted soundbites, notes Arnie Alpert, co-director of the New Hampshire Program of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker-based activist organization. For example, when Senator Warren does her famous selfie line for photos, “her staff people take your phone from you, and then they take the ‘selfie,’” Mr. Alpert says with a laugh. “What that does is keep you from using your phone to actually record the interaction.”
Progressive faith leaders believe Love 2020 provides a meaningful alternative – and they’ve been working hard to secure a seat at the table in New Hampshire. They have raced, sometimes with just a few hours’ notice, to meet with candidates in churches, barns, anywhere they can get a brief audience with the person who might be their next president. They say they’re trying to reframe what faith-based political action can look like.
“We do not talk about abortion, we do not talk about the traditional faith-based things,” said Eva Castillo, a Venezuelan immigrant who directs the New Hampshire Alliance of Immigrants and Refugees. “We show them a different face of faith, you know? More open-minded, more equalizing.”
All the major Democratic contenders, with the exception so far of former Vice President Joe Biden, have carved out time to meet with the Love 2020 group of clerics, each of whom has a local following and a measure of clout.
“This spotlight on our state gives us a chance to influence the national dialogue,” says GSOP Executive Director Sarah Jane Knoy. “To focus on our shared values and our common humanity – because the current national dialogue is very divisive and, I think, really kind of hateful.”
For local religious leaders, Love 2020 also provides a platform to ask the kinds of values questions candidates don’t always hear elsewhere. In a video of the Buttigieg session, provided by Love 2020 organizers, the Rt. Rev. Robert Hirschfeld, bishop of the Episcopal Church of New Hampshire, can be heard asking: “What’s in your soul? What’s in your heart that is going to help us reknit together the torn social fabric?”
Mr. Buttigieg responded that when he’s campaigning, his soul is “just out there for everyone to see.”
“There is a crisis of belonging in our country that I think is propelling everything from the brokenness of our politics to mental health issues” including rising rates of suicide and drug addiction, he told the group. “Holding the American project together depends so much on whether we can create that sense of belonging. ... It may well be the most important function of the presidency.”
The clergy also minister to the candidates they meet, much as evangelical leaders have done when laying hands on President Donald Trump and praying for him. Mr. Hirschfeld led Mr. Buttigieg and the assembled group in prayer.
The Rev. Sarah Rockwell of St. Andrew’s Church in Manchester offered another kind of spiritual support to Mr. Buttigieg, as he navigates the pressures and personal tolls of running for president. “Keeping a marriage intact – it is not easy,” Ms. Rockwell quietly said to the candidate as they left the meeting room. “You are in my prayers, and so is he.”
“Thank you,” Mr. Buttigieg said with a smile. “Keep the prayers coming.”
5.You know Goodall and Fossey. Meet Dagg, ‘The Woman Who Loves Giraffes.’
Yes, this is a documentary about Africa's giraffes. But it’s mostly about the delightful resilience of a Canadian biologist who for 60 years pursued her long-necked passion despite discrimination. Monitor critic Peter Rainer says “Dagg is such a singular personality that everything about her seems sprightly and newly minted.”
Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films
When Canadian biologist Anne Innis Dagg was 3 years old, her mother took her to the zoo for the first time. There she saw her first giraffe, and a lifelong love affair ensued. And who can blame her? Is there any other four-legged creature whose looks are more magisterially goofy?
Dagg is the focus of Alison Reid’s “The Woman Who Loves Giraffes,” and it confirms a long-held tenet of mine: If the subject of a documentary is fascinating, it doesn’t much matter if the filmmaking is workmanlike. Now in her 80s, Dagg is such a singular personality that everything about her seems sprightly and newly minted.
At 23, in the summer of 1956, with a master’s degree in biology, she traveled alone to South Africa during a time of mounting political unrest in order to study up close her beloved giraffes. Other than a Scottish study of red deer, she was the first person to venture into the wilds to investigate animal behavior.
This was years before either Jane Goodall or Dian Fossey embarked on their work with chimpanzees and mountain gorillas. Her dogged independence had a rich pedigree: Her mother, Mary Quayle, was the dean of women at the University of Toronto’s University College; her father, Harold Innis, was a famous economist.
Thanks to the welcoming ministrations of Alexander Matthew, whose citrus and cattle ranch was also home to many free-roaming giraffes, Dagg was able to closely observe these magnificent animals. Her research was groundbreaking, and the 16 millimeter color footage she shot at the time, amply displayed in the documentary, is breathtaking. (I was especially grateful that Dagg didn’t photograph any maulings or attacks – an unfortunate ingredient in far too many wildlife documentaries.)
By all rights, Dagg’s yearlong South African trip should have set the stage for a glorious scientific career. But in the 1960s and ’70s, after returning home, she found herself effectively closed out of academia, denied tenure at several leading universities despite the fact that she had acquired a Ph.D. and been published in prominent scientific journals. Women professors, especially in the sciences, were not welcomed. That she was also married was used as a further argument against her receiving tenure.
Between 1972 and 1979, she presented her discrimination case before the Ontario Human Rights Commission. She lost the fight but it was also at this time, in 1976, that she co-wrote (with Bristol Foster) what became the bible in her field: “The Giraffe: Its Biology, Behavior and Ecology.” But with no full-time academic position in sight, and no research money to return to Africa, her giraffe studies were curtailed.
She continued to write books and articles, many of a feminist bent, but it was only in 2010, when Amy Phelps, curator of the San Francisco Zoo, sought her out that she received her long-delayed due.
The most powerful moments in the movie come when we see Dagg, accompanied by her daughter Mary, return to Africa for the first time since 1956. She crosses some of the same terrain as she did in her 20s, and notes with awe that she could well be looking at the progeny of those she observed more than 50 years earlier.
But she’s no nostalgia junkie. The decimation of the giraffe population in the intervening decades – a drop of almost 40% since the 1980s alone – captures her full attention, and she has become a leading light in the giraffe conservation movement.
Why didn’t Dagg receive the same recognition in her prime as Goodall or Fossey? Dagg’s theory is that giraffes, as opposed to chimps or gorillas, are so different from us that they don’t inspire the same kind of global attention. They’re like unicorns, she says. But who can doubt the wonder they inspire in Dagg? Reunited with the African giraffes, her eyes look as rapt now as they must have been when she was that 3-year-old girl at the zoo.
The Monitor's View
A Christian Science Perspective
A way out of deterministic theories
Is our destiny defined by events outside our control, limiting our potential for progress or even our chances of survival? Christian Science shows how we can experience the bright promise of salvation and blessings, not doom, in our daily lives.
A cartoon in The New Yorker some time ago depicts God sitting at a desk. On one side is an inbox filled with people smiling and exchanging high-fives. On the other, an outbox with people weeping and wailing. In front of the desk, a throng awaits God’s judgment.
The cartoon, which evokes the intended smile, speaks to the old theological doctrine of predestination, by which God selects some to be saved while the rest are consigned to eternal damnation.
Although this doctrine has largely been abandoned, other secular forms of predestination, or “determinism,” would place man under conditions over which he supposedly has no control, circumscribing his progress or even his chances for survival – or example, fatal health prognoses, beliefs associated with heredity, or threatening environmental trends.
All forms of determinism – genetic, cultural, biological, economic – derive their sanction from theories that define man as material. But determinism in every form, as well as the underlying belief that man is material, is challenged by the understanding Christian Science imparts that God, good, alone governs man, and that man’s destiny can therefore be characterized only by that which is good and harmonious.
Christian Science points to the bright promise of the Bible’s assurance of man’s eternal salvation. “What God knows, He also predestinates ... ,” Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science, writes in her pamphlet “No and Yes” (p. 37). Thus, every one of us is destined only for good, not unavoidable suffering.
As our loving Father-Mother, God has created us as the spiritual reflection of His own nature, supplying health, abundance, and holiness to each of us, eternally. God’s beneficence annihilates every mortal theory that would deprive us of our birthright of perfection and purity.
A poignant example of this might be found in the biblical story of Jonah (see Jonah, chaps. 1-4). Jonah was sent by God to the city of Nineveh to preach repentance because of the people’s wicked ways. Instead, Jonah set sail for the city of Tarshish. Later verses indicate he did not feel the people of Nineveh were worth saving, so deep were their sins.
But being required by God to make this trip, Jonah was chastened. The Bible says he was swallowed by a whale and remained in the whale’s belly for three days and nights – an experience that caused Jonah to humble himself and follow God’s direction. When he finally did make the journey and preach in Nineveh, the people did repent and the city was saved.
God’s plan of salvation is most clearly seen through the advent of the Messiah. Interestingly, when asked for a sign that his works were of God, Christ Jesus pointed to “the sign of the prophet Jonah” as “the only sign I will give” (Matthew 12:39, New Living Translation), further confirming that God’s purpose is always to save and restore.
As we gain the true understanding of God and man, we’re freed from the belief in limiting theories that would declare man doomed rather than blessed. Daily steps in this direction give to human existence its supreme purpose and meaning.
When my sister was 5, she was diagnosed with scarlet fever. The doctor told my parents that unless she took a certain pill on a regular basis she wouldn’t live. But she was unable to ingest the pills.
My father had just become a Christian Scientist, as the result of a healing of a skin condition deemed incurable by more than one doctor. So in despair in the middle of the night, he called a Christian Science practitioner for prayerful help for my sister.
By morning, just a few hours later, my sister was completely healed. In her adulthood, she became a Christian Science practitioner herself, helping many others overcome deterministic medical beliefs.
As to the matter of theological determinism, it is significant that as a child, Mrs. Eddy rebelled against the doctrine of predestination, which was a tenet of the beloved church that her family attended and of which she remained a member until she founded a church of her own. “I was unwilling to be saved,” she later wrote, “if my brothers and sisters were to be numbered among those who were doomed to perpetual banishment from God” (“Retrospection and Introspection,” p. 13).
This idea that God’s will provides salvation for everyone is central to Christian Science, which explains that men and women are “predestined” only to manifest in full measure the qualities of our creator, God, divine Love. Guided by this conviction, prayer can bring to light more of God’s invariable and eternal love.
Adapted from an article published in the Jan. 13, 2020, issue of the Christian Science Sentinel.
Long day’s journey