Ethics, Unfairness and the Palin Problem

Is it worse for an elected official, leader, public figure or opinion-maker to be dishonest, irresponsible, or stupid? Fortunately, any of three should disqualify an individual for power or influence, so answering the question is not essential. This too is fortunate, because it is sometimes impossible to determine which disqualifying characteristic is on display.

Take, for example, Sarah Palin’s recent comments, made to a religious gathering in Kentucky, that…

“Lest anyone try to convince you that God should be separated from the state, our Founding Fathers, they were believers.”

This is historical and philosophical misrepresentation; nonsense, really. If Palin knows that, then she was lying. If she is misinformed and was carelessly misleading people who trust her to know her American history better than they do, then she was irresponsible. And if she has read the Founding Fathers and still thinks they didn’t believe in the separation of Church and State, then she is as dumb as a box of Anna Ferris movies.

Palin is a commentator on Fox News, and  paid to offer her expert political opinion on TV and behind podiums. She is also, like it or not, a leader, because when a lot of people follow you, you’re leading. As a political leader in America, she has an duty to know what the Constitution says, and the Bill of Rights says that

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;…”

That is what is known as “separation of Church and State.” Sarah can’t say not to believe that the Founding Fathers wanted it, because, well, there it is. All political lies are wrong, whether they are promises the speaker never intended to keep, intentionally dishonest characterizations of an adversary’s motives, or a denial when an admission or confession is required. Intentionally misrepresenting America’s core principles to the ignorant and gullible, however, is especially despicable. Unless, of course, Sarah is ignorant and gullible herself. Then it is less despicable than disgraceful and frightening.

Palin’s detractors in the media and elsewhere, meanwhile, are now victims of their own excesses and unfairness, and must play the thankless role of “The Boy” in the fable, “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” They have spent so much time and so many words viciously attacking Palin for conduct and statements that were harmless, legitimate or defensible, that now, when she really deserves to be exposed, no one is likely to listen. This is the problem with being unfair to people who you have decided don’t “deserve” fairness. Unfair, unethical criticism inoculates them against legitimate criticism later. Sarah Palin is now the beneficiary of her critics’ unethical excesses, and her real flaws—dishonesty, irresponsibility, stupidity, or some combination thereof–will be harder to expose than ever.

9 thoughts on “Ethics, Unfairness and the Palin Problem

  1. And yet, this country had established religion until 1833. None of the established, official churches were deemed unconstitutional and none were stopped by the courts.

    I think Palin’s statement is horribly phrased and almost meaningless, but the quote from the Constitution is misleading as well. The Bill of Rights stopped Congress from meddling in the religious affairs of the states. It did not establish a separation of church and state. A declaration that there should be such a separation likely would have resulted in the Bill of Rights being rejected by the states.

    • You can’t really say it’s “misleading.” The Bill of Rights says that the government can’t tell us what religion to have. Subsequent Supreme Court decisions have, mostly logically, declared what constitutes the government telling us that. The fact that the Founding Fathers wouldn’t have extended the concept to Christmas trees in the public square and mandated school prayers is true, but pointless. The Constitution was a political document that didn’t have as much consensus behind it as we pretend, and much of the phrasing is so vague as to be cryptic. (See: Second Amendment) Government supported churches weren’t challenged because there weren’t sufficient people who had an interest in challenging them: the Supreme Court will let unconstitutional acts sit if nobody asks them.

      Arguing that the Establishment Clause doesn’t mandate separation is pretty Clintonian. If the state isn’t separated from church, then freedom of religion (which includes freedom not to be religious) is a sham. Arguing that America is based on Judeo-Christian values and culture is one thing; arguing that the government should be actively promoting Christianity is another. Anyone who doesn’t know the difference shouldn’t be on TV.

      • I said that your statement was misleading because of the following quote.
        ““Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;…”

        That is what is known as “separation of Church and State.” Sarah can’t say not to believe that the Founding Fathers wanted it, because, well, there it is”

        No, there it is not. You CAN say that’s not what the Founding Fathers wanted because the current separation of Church and State came later. At the time of the founding fathers, Connecticut could tax everyone in the state to support the state church, and that was fine. Thomas Jefferson, who coined the term separation of church and state in the early 19th century still didn’t see anything wrong with attending church in the House of Representatives.

        • State, not “states.” The Founding fathers were talking about the nation in the Constitution, not the states. Today that distinction means less than it did then, thanks to the 14th. Palin is wrong that the Founding Fathers did not believe there should be a separation between the Church and THE State–e.g., that national government. States were not even part of the conversation in the Bill of Rights, so you really can’t cite individual state conduct to excuse Palin.

          You have one point: Sarah was provoked by the overturning of a state day of prayer. I wouldn’t bet much that she was making a state’s rights argument, would you?

  2. Originally, the First Amendment meant that the federal government could not interfere in religious matters (the wall of separation interpretation was endorsed by Jefferson himself) but, as Michael notes, states had more leeway in this matter.

    Since the 14th, though, I think the entirety of the First, separation of state and church included, has been made to apply to the states.

  3. And shame on McCain for bringing Palin into the limelight. And shame on Fox News for supporting her silliness. And shame on her for being so… palinish.

  4. I won’t blame McCain for picking Palin; she would scare me as President no more than Joe Biden, Al Gore, Dan Quayle, or Dick Cheney. It was a Hail Mary gamble to get himself elected. I support that strategy: no point in running if you don’t try to win. She was a decent Governor. I think the Palin McCain nominates was very different from the media monster we see today.

  5. Ethics Meister: “States were not even part of the conversation in the Bill of Rights . . .”

    Tenth Amendment: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

    Yes, I know this supports your argument.

    I just like pulling your chain now and then.

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