During a speech Tuesday at the National Press Club, Ohio Governor and Republican presidential candidate John Kasich offered a litany of ideas meant to broaden the influence of the United States and combat the rise of the Islamic State. Among them was one that, on its face, seemed to contradict the 1st Amendment to the Constitution.
"We must be more forceful in the battle of ideas," Kasich said. "U.S. public diplomacy and international broadcasting have lost their focus on the case for Western values and ideals and effectively countering our opponents' propaganda and disinformation. I will consolidate them into a new agency that has a clear mandate to promote the core, Judeo-Christian Western values that we and our friends and allies share: the values of human rights, the values of democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom of association." The areas he would target: the Middle East, China, Iran and Russia.
What jumps out is Kasich's description of this new government effort: A propaganda organization with a "mandate" to promote "Judeo-Christian" values.
Curious about the constitutionality of such a thing, we called New York University civil liberties professor Burt Neuborne, former legal director of the ACLU and founding legal director of the Brennan Center for Justice.
"The 'Judeo-Christian' phrase, my sense is, is an unfortunate phrase by the governor," Neuborne said. "What he really means is historically the values associated with Western culture. That's just politician-talk when he calls it 'Judeo-Christian.' " That idea is validated by Kasich's description of what those values are. Democracy and free speech, of course, are not fundamentally 'Judeo-Christian' ideas.
There's no Constitutional problem with creating a department focused on propaganda, Neuborne notes. During the Cold War, the government spent a lot of effort trying to persuade the Soviet Union of the superiority of democratic values. (To this day, the government operates Voice of America.) "If they actually wanted to create an agency that was designed to advance particular values — under recent Supreme Court decisions, the government has a 1st Amendment right to speak as well," he said. "If they choose to advance particular values, I think that would be a policy idea."
A President Kasich, though, "couldn't create an agency designed to promote strictly religious values," Neuborne said. "To the extent he's insisting in making it a religious institution, he's making it harder on himself. But my bet is that's not what he intended."
Interestingly, the phrase "Judeo-Christian values" itself also came to prominence during the Cold War, partly as a contrast to the atheistic policies of the Soviet Union. Google's index of text in books shows that it only emerged in common usage after the end of World War II. (See this study, shared on Twitter by Aaron Bady.)
This reinforces Neuborne's point: The phrase has often been a political one.
Kasich — of the generation that grew up during the Cold War — used a Cold War phrase to describe a Cold War idea. And assuming he doesn't get elected and start a radio station telling people to read the Bible or the Torah, there's nothing wrong with that.