First up from the God Machine this week is an amazing church-state story out of Alabama, where one public official is pushing a strange new argument about the Ten Commandments.
In an effort to educate the public on the divine origins of America's founding documents, Jackson County Commissioner Tim Guffey (R) has proposed erecting a Ten Commandments monument, as well as displays of the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, outside the county courthouse.
"If you look at the documents that was written -- the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence -- they are all stemmed from the word of God, from the Ten Commandments," Guffey, who proposed the projects at a recent commission meeting, told WHNT on Thursday.
As the Huffington Post report explains, Guffey is working from the premise that the Ten Commandments, as the tenets appear in the Old Testament, is "not for any type of religion" and he may be pushing a religious display, but he's "not doing it to push religion at all."
There are some fairly obvious problems with the pitch. For example, the U.S. Constitution does not "stem from" the Ten Commandments -- it's an entirely secular document that separates church from state. For that matter, to argue that a Biblical list of commandments that begins, "I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt have no other gods before me" is not religious seems a little silly.
But the larger point is that some conservatives are so eager to have government extend official support to their religious beliefs that they're willing to argue that their sacred texts have no religious value at all. It's ironic, in a way -- it's tempting to think opponents of religion would want to strip sacred texts of their spiritual significance. Here we have the opposite.
Congressman Adam Schiff, a senior member of the House Intelligence Committee, talks with Rachel Maddow about whether the military action against ISIS constitutes a war, and whether Congress is capable of doing its duty of debating the authorization of... watch
Rachel Maddow asks of the spotlight on Ferguson, 'when the angle of the light changes, are we going to keep seeing this as clearly as we have for the past two weeks? How long can we keep seeing this and will it be long enough to start making it better?" watch
* Ukraine: "The Russian military has moved artillery units manned by Russian personnel inside Ukrainian territory in recent days and was using them to fire at Ukrainian forces, NATO officials said on Friday."
* Related news: "More than 200 trucks from a long-stalled Russian convoy said to be carrying humanitarian aid crossed the border into eastern Ukraine on Friday without Red Cross escorts, drawing angry accusations from Ukraine that Moscow had broken its word and mounted what a senior Ukrainian security official called a 'direct invasion.'"
* Word choice matters: "The White House said Friday that the beheading of American journalist James Foley by ISIS militants constituted a terrorist attack against the United States. 'When you see somebody killed in such a horrific way, that represents a terrorist attack -- that represents a terrorist attack against our country and against an American citizen,' said Ben Rhodes, the White House deputy national security adviser."
* Gaza: "One day after three top Hamas commanders were killed in an Israeli airstrike, at least 18 Palestinians were killed Friday by firing squads in Gaza City, sentenced to death by a 'revolutionary resistance court' for collaborating with Israel during a time of war."
* Ferguson: "Thousands of dollars have been raised for the officer who fatally shot unarmed teen Michael Brown. A crowdfunding website was created on Monday to raise funds for Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson, who killed 18-year-old Brown on Aug. 9.... Nearly 6,000 people had raised more than $234,000 by mid-afternoon on Friday, through a GoFundMe site."
* Protests: "Contrary to concerns about violence or vandalism, protesters held peaceful events in Washington Thursday night in response to events in Ferguson, Mo. What had been billed as a 'Day of Rage' in front of the White House drew about two dozen people, including D.C. and St. Louis natives, and a cadre of local press."
* Pushing back against the GAO: "The White House on Friday rejected findings by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) that President Obama broke the law when he swapped Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five Taliban leaders from Guantanamo Bay."
* On a related note, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) seemed delighted by the GAO report. But if Boehner considered the Bergdahl swap illegal, why didn't he include this in his anti-Obama lawsuit?
* 30 feet is ridiculously close: "A Chinese fighter jet this week flew within 30 feet of a Navy surveillance and reconnaissance plane in international airspace just off the Chinese coast, the Pentagon said Friday. The encounter, known as an intercept, was 'very very close, very dangerous,' said Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary."
* Combating poverty: "A true measure of a president's priorities lies hidden in plain sight in his budget proposals. Under that standard, Mr. Obama has been more committed to communities like Ferguson than any Democratic president in the past half century. By looking at what percentage of the budget presidents propose to spend to fight poverty, we can compare their degree of commitment."
* We'll see: "House Republicans won't shut down the government in September, Heritage Action is 'constructive at the end of the day' and a person can write a book without necessarily running for president. Those were some of the points Rep. Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., hit home during an exclusive interview with CQ Roll Call Wednesday afternoon from the ornate Union League Building in downtown Philadelphia."
* Did the Affordable Care Act cause trouble at a Chicago Cubs game this week? No, which is why it's a shame so many in the media have reported this incorrectly.
* Good move: "The Washington Post editorial board said Friday it will stop using the word 'Redskins' when referring to Washington's football team, joining a growing list of other commentators who have renounced the term because they believe it disparages Native Americans."
It's been a couple of months since the Supreme Court's conservatives, in a 5-4 ruling, sided with Hobby Lobby. In the case, the private, for-profit corporation sought an exemption from the Affordable Care Act's contraception policy, and the Republican-appointed justices agreed.
But as a matter of public policy, that left an unresolved problem in need of a remedy: employees at "closely held" companies run by religious conservatives still need access to birth control. It was only a matter of time before the Obama administration unveiled a new set of rules to guarantee access for these affected workers.
The new policies are intended to fill gaps left by two Supreme Court moves: The landmark Hobby Lobby decision saying contraceptive coverage violated the religious liberty of a for-profit corporation, and a preliminary order in Wheaton College v. Burwell. With today's regulations, employees of for-profit corporations like Hobby Lobby will be able to access an "accommodation" where the insurer directly provides the cost-free coverage with no financial involvement by the employer. That accommodation was originally limited to religiously-affiliated nonprofits like Little Sisters of the Poor; houses of worship are fully exempt.
For nonprofits like Wheaton College that object to even that accommodation -- which involves them signing a form to their insurer -- the Obama administration has created a new accommodation to the accommodation. (Yes, it gets complicated.)
Irin, of course, is correct. It does get complicated.
The good news, under the newly unveiled rules, Americans will still have the contraception access they deserve, regardless of their boss' religious beliefs. The bad news is, navigating the process, designed to accommodate anti-contraception private employers, isn't easy.
We talked earlier about Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who brought three television cameras, three photographers, six reporters, a political aide, two press secretaries, and far-right activist David Bossie to Guatemala for a "stage-managed political voyage." But it appears that wasn't the only reason for the trip.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) told the Guatemalan president the surge of child immigrants flooding the U.S. border this year is a result of President Obama's policies, not problems in Central America.
"I told him, frankly, that I didn't think the problem was in Guatemala City, but that the problem was in the White House in our country, and that the mess we've got at the border is frankly because of the White House's policies," Paul told Brietbart News in an article published Thursday.
According to the report in The Hill, the Kentucky Republican sat down with Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina for 45 minutes, and the senator discussed politics with the foreign head of state.
"I think what's happened at the border is all squarely at the president's lap," Paul said. "The problem and the solution aren't in Guatemala. The problem and solution reside inside the White House."
As a substantive matter, the senator's position is tough to defend or even understand. President Obama didn't sign the 2008 human-trafficking measure into law; he didn't create awful conditions in Central American countries; and he didn't encourage anyone to lie to desperate families about what would happen to their children. If there's a coherent explanation for why the White House to blame, it's hiding well.
But even putting that aside, since when is it kosher for U.S. officials to travel abroad to condemn U.S. leaders like this?
Today's installment of campaign-related news items that won't necessarily generate a post of their own, but may be of interest to political observers:
* For months, nearly every poll in New Hampshire's U.S. Senate race has shown incumbent Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D) with a comfortable lead over former Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.). Yesterday, however, a Granite State Poll found Shaheen's lead slipping to just two, 46% to 44%. (Sometimes, when a poll seems like an outlier, that's because it's an outlier.)
* Speaking of Scott Brown's original home state, state Attorney General Martha Coakley (D) continues to lead Charlie Baker (R) in Massachusetts' gubernatorial race, 41% to 34%, in the new Boston Globe poll.
* In Kentucky's closely watched U.S. Senate race, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (D) reminded the Kentucky Farm Bureau this week that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) not only opposed the Farm Bill, he's "missed every Agriculture Committee meeting" for nearly three years.
* In Georgia's close U.S. Senate race, Michelle Nunn (D) continues to slam David Perdue (R) for his Romney-esque business practices. Her latest ad features laid-off workers from a textile company that Perdue closed and profited from.
* On a related note, EMILY's List, a reproductive-rights organization, is also launching a $1 million ad campaign criticizing Perdue's controversial private-sector background.
* In South Dakota's U.S. Senate race, Rick Weiland (D) is a heavy underdog against former Gov. Mike Rounds (R), a point that isn't lost on the Democrat. Referencing Rounds, Weiland called his opponent, "senator, or, soon-to-be," before catching himself. He added, laughing, "No, not soon-to-be. That's a good gaffe. I'll take that back. Soon-to-want-to-be Sen. Mike Rounds."
It's been nearly four months since President Obama announced that Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the last remaining P.O.W. in Afghanistan, was returning home, touching off a fierce political controversy. It seemed implausible that the freeing of an American prisoner of war being treated as bad news, but White House critics characterized it as a "scandal," possibly worthy of impeachment.
For the most part, congressional Republicans undermined their own political cause from the outset. There were legitimate questions about whether the administration sidestepped the letter of the law when it failed to notify Congress 30 days in advance of the prisoner-transfer plan, but for much of the right, these questions were less interesting than wild-eyed conspiracy theories. As Paul Waldman put it at the time, conservatives were "so quick to jump on the train to Crazytown" that they undermined "their own legitimate arguments."
In time, GOP officials lost interest in the story -- apparently, there's going to be some new Benghazi committee? -- but those underlying concerns haven't completely faded just yet.
The Defense Department violated the law when it didn't tell Congress before transferring five Taliban detainees from Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to Qatar in return for the Taliban's release of captured Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the Government Accountability Office said in a legal decision made public Thursday.
Pentagon officials "did not notify the relevant congressional committees at least 30 days in advance of the transfer," as required by law, GAO General Counsel Susan A. Poling said in a letter to nine Republican senators who had sought the analysis.
The GAO's findings came in response to a formal request from nine Republican senators. (The report largely mirrors an argument Adam Serwer published for msnbc in June.)
Seizing on the opportunity, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, now wants the Justice Department to appoint a special counsel.
So, do Republicans have a point? It's a little complicated.
Some new data was released this week on U.S. manufacturing, and the news was encouraging: the U.S. auto industry has "hit the gas pedal." The White House, as it's done before, is taking a victory lap.
Now, our auto industry is once again a source of economic strength, with more and more of the world's top-of-the-line, fuel-efficient vehicles being made by American workers in American factories. In fact, the number of cars coming off our assembly lines just reached its highest level in 12 years. [...]
[T]he number of vehicles built on American assembly lines since 2000 rose to a seasonally adjusted annualized rate of 13.2 million vehicles in July. The increase in auto production mirrors the growing strength of America's manufacturing sector, which has added more than 700,000 jobs since early 2010.
The White House, which produced the above chart, has plenty of reasons to be happy. The first and most obvious, of course, is that a stronger U.S. auto industry is necessarily good news for the domestic economy.
But there's also the matter of who was right in 2009 and who wasn't. President Obama took a big risk launching his rescue policy during the economic crisis. It wasn't a popular idea, and though it looks like a no-brainer with the benefit of hindsight, there was no guarantee the plan would work.
In July 2010, NBC News' First Read said, "As the GM bailout goes, so goes the Obama presidency." More than four years later, the White House probably thinks that sounds pretty good.
And then there are the policy's critics, whose condemnations don't hold up nearly as well.
About a year ago, Georgia Insurance Commissioner Ralph Hudgens bragged to a crowd of fellow Republicans: "Let me tell you what we're doing [about ObamaCare]: Everything in our power to be an obstructionist."
It was a striking quote that quickly took on national significance. As a rule, policymakers at least pretend to care about working constructively, but here was a state official boasting about his deliberate embrace of obstructionism.
"I spoke to a Republican group in Rome, Ga., and I said I was going to be an obstructionist, but I can't be. I mean, I was talking to a Republican group and I was throwing them some red meat."
Hudgens added yesterday that the number of private insurers competing for Georgia consumers' business has nearly doubled -- these companies "took a wait and see attitude and now they've come in" -- which may expand the public's choices and possibly lower prices.
The Georgia Insurance Commissioner went to say he's still "not a fan" of the Affordable Care Act, "but there's nothing I can do about it."
Also yesterday, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, a far-right Republican and fierce ACA critic "applied to participate in an Affordable Care Act program designed to help states develop innovative models for delivering care and reducing costs for participants in Medicaid, Medicare and the Children's Health Insurance Program" (thanks to reader F.O.R. for the tip).
What do these stories have in common? They're emblematic of a sea change in the politics of health care.
Not everyone wants to participate in the Ice Bucket Challenge. President Obama and Vice President Biden, for example, have both demurred. Due to rules related to public officials and fundraising campaigns, diplomats and active-duty U.S. troops aren't supposed to partake in the campaign, either.
A Catholic diocese in Ohio is discouraging its schools from participating in the ice bucket challenge to benefit the ALS Association, citing its funding of research involving embryonic stem cells.
In a letter sent Tuesday to its 113 schools, the Archdiocese of Cincinnati's superintendent of Catholic schools says the research being funded is "in direct conflict with Catholic teaching."
Apparently, the schools can participate in the challenge in a general sense, but they're not supposed to support the ALS Association, which started the campaign to raise money and awareness about the fight against Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis.
The AP report added this quote from diocese spokesman Dan Andriacco: "We certainly appreciate the compassion that has caused people all over the country, certainly including many Catholics, to be interacting and engaging in a fun way to support ALS research. But it's a well-established moral principle that not only the ends be good, but the means must be good, too."
And in this case, because the "means" might include research on embryonic stem cells, the Cincinnati Archdiocese doesn't want schools contributing to the ALS Association.
I knew there were some political/policy angles to the Ice Bucket Challenge, but I'll confess, I didn't see this one coming.