Friday, August 22, 2008

DEMOCRATIC PARTY PLATFORM - Faith, Fatherhood, and the Death Penalty

The platform repeats the 2004 celebration of faith, directly borrowing language: "We honor the central place of faith in our lives." (p. 48) This is part of a troubling new mainstream consensus that faith is a necessary public value that makes "our nation, our communities, and our lives...vastly stronger and richer." According to this view, the historic separation of faith/religion from public/policy decision-making and governance has been due to misundertandings of the Constitution and the secular base on which it stands.

In addition to articulating a political norm that good citizenship takes faith, the platform provision on faith embraces institutionalized faith -- religious institutions such as churches -- as government's partner. Notwithstanding the establishment clause, the platform summarily declares: "there is no conflict between supporting faith-based institutions and respecting our Constitution."

The platform section on "Children and Families" (p.49) spends a lot of time talking about making sure children are raised right. In addition to enumerating some policies (eg., Head Start, health care) and parental actions (turn off the TV, help with homework) that would benefit kids, the section also discusses the importance of fathers. Mothers are not mentioned at all (unless a reference to maternal health counts).

I have written extensively elsewhere about what's so troubling about redefining mothers'/children's economic insecurity as mothers'/children's need for fathers. See also the writings of Anna Marie Smith and Julia Jordan-Zachery. Let me draw attention here to the fact that the platform adopts wholesale some rather questionable assertions about the vile consequences for children of growing up without a father. The inevitable result of this argument is pressure on mothers to enter into marriages with biological fathers in order to do right by their children. This bodes a return to patriarchal (and heterosexist) norms and rewards in family policy -- norms and rewards that impede equality for women who are mothers.

Embedded in this section are some useful commitments -- especially a reform of the child support enforcement system to make sure that support payments go directly to families. Also, the notion that family leave can also be availed by fathers is an important addition to the discourse.

However, neither child support reform nor the prospect of fathers taking leave to help raise children justify defining fatherhood as a central component of social policy.

Death Penalty:
The 2004 platform did not advocate the death penalty. One big "change" in the 2008 platform is reference to the death penalty in the "Criminal Justice" section. Although the wording points to discrimination in the allocation of the death penalty, the sentence expresses concern by first endorsing the death penalty: "We believe that the death penalty must not be arbitrary."

This is not exactly a surprise to anyone who heard Obama's response to the Supreme Court's ruling against the death penalty in child rape cases. He denounced the decision, saying that the death penalty is appropriate in these cases, and embracing "state's rights" to make the decision to make certain crimes punishable by death.

Not a surprise, but distressing nonetheless.

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