Pompeo and Circumstance

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that “property rights and religious liberty” were two of the most important unalienable rights envisioned by the nation’s founders. Credit…Pool photo by Andrew Harnik

We are still largely living in denial, while this regime systematically isolates us and consolidates power. We’re all watching the literal, actual clown in the center ring, and the clown car of Karens and Kens that followed him in, but the real work is ongoing, as it has been pretty much unabated since Reagan’s “Morning in America.” And we’ve still got a long way to go before the sun sets on this crowd. Those who long for equality and justice could learn a lot from the long-term relationships that have gone into the making of this moment in history, when even the notion, which we used to take for granted, that everyone longed for equality and justice, has been exposed as wishful thinking. The powerful seem so sure of themselves right now. Every day there’s a new assault on the very idea of human rights, which was so hard-won. The United Nations and The Universal Declaration of Human Rights were created out of the unspeakable atrocities of two world wars that touched every life on the planet.

Of course, the US has grown increasingly hostile to both the UN and human rights, at home and abroad, in recent years. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a speech on Thursday calling for the United States to ground its human rights policy more prominently in religious liberty and property rights. The event was blessed, literally, by the American Catholic Church, whose leadership has largely rejected Pope Francis while embracing Trump, opening with a religious invocation from Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, the archbishop of New York. Dolan, you’ll recall, led the effort to persuade President Barack Obama to exempt religious institutions from having to provide health coverage that included birth control. He deplored same-sex marriage. “Today is a tragic day for marriage and our nation,” he said when the Supreme Court struck down part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act in 2013.

Pompeo is an evangelical (the story of developing affinities between the Evangelical and the Catholic right is far too tangled for this little rant). Suffice it to say: Pompeo likes to talk about the rapture, a lot, and understands the culture wars in the US in eschatological terms. He often brings the language of end times into his political speeches. “We will continue to fight these battles,” he said at a “God and Country Rally” in 2015, because there is a “never-ending struggle” until “the rapture.”

He’s not alone in his religious pretensions. As the New York Times reports:

The Commission on Unalienable Rights, as Pompeo’s panel is called, is led by Mary Ann Glendon, a Harvard Law School professor and former ambassador to the Vatican. She is a prominent anti-abortion activist who once said that awarding The Boston Globe the Pulitzer Prize for its reporting on child abuse by Catholic priests “would be like giving the Nobel Peace Prize to Osama bin Laden.” The panel is also rooted in the vision of Robert P. George, a Princeton professor and leading proponent of “natural law” theory, a term that human rights scholars say is code for “God-given rights” and is commonly deployed in fights to roll back rights for women and LGBTQ people.

In this most recent speech, Pompeo laid out the agenda: “It’s important for every American, and for every American diplomat, to recognize how our founders understood unalienable rights. Foremost among these rights are property rights and religious liberty.” Pompeo singled out the 1619 Project, a New York Times initiative re-examining the legacy of slavery, for scorn, which is clearly beyond alarming in this context. He described it as part of “a dark vision of America’s birth” and a “disturbed reading of our history.” Of course, at the time of the founding of the US, none of the “unalienable rights” in the Constitution applied to blacks, who were considered the property of whites.

There is no question that in the minds of this Secretary of State, his hand-picked commission, and his influential audience, there is and should be a hierarchy of “unalienable” rights and a hierarchy of those who are granted access to them. While women and LGBTQ people have long been targets, this truly unholy ideology is about making absolutely sure that there are categories of people that are exempted from basic rights, and that where there is a question, protection of property rights supersedes human rights. This is not just a doctrine that imperils a protected class or two; this is one that seeks to further bolster white supremacy at a time when white men feel particularly threatened, despite white men owning damn near everything.

A very simple example of how this doctrine is already at work in the US is healthcare, where there is no universal coverage, and no guarantee that those who cannot pay will receive the same quality of care as those with private insurance. (Even private insurance has levels of coverage that may leave those with a lower cost insurance at higher risk of economic ruin should they get sick.) Insurance is tied to employment (i.e., the property class), and what we are seeing now, with religious exemptions, is not only that employers can make decisions regarding the cost and availability of employees’ reproductive health resources, but if an employee comes out as LGBTQ — a protected class, mind you — an employer’s religious exemption can be used to terminate employment, and with it healthcare coverage.

Race and ethnicity have also long been implicated in both employment opportunities and quality of healthcare. The ACA sought to address disparities in health coverage that impacted people of color in part because of their lack of full-time employment opportunities and attendant benefits. Tying healthcare to employment is just one way systemic racism endangers black lives. When Pompeo talks about protecting property is very clearly talking about this system. Again: this is only one example of the application of Pompeo’s doctrine of the supremacy of “religious liberty” and property rights, which touches every aspect of human life, from education and healthy environment to housing and food security.

When our rights and freedoms are viewed through this lens of monetization and scarcity, we all grasp that saying, doing, or being the “wrong thing” can result in basic human rights being taken, too. We already accept this, however grudgingly, with black and brown people, citizens and asylum seekers, who are stripped of freedom and rights, often without trial, sometimes for a lifetime. We all understand, implicitly, if not explicitly, what all of this means, and act accordingly. This is how power is perpetuated in a scarcity culture. And here we can see: it is clearly by design.

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