A Distraction: “An Evangelical Manifesto”

May 14, 2008

Since we just finished a series on Religion and Politics, I thought this was relevant.  I haven’t had time to read it in full, but it’s been creating a lot of stir.  You can read the manifesto here.  I found out about it at the following blog, which seems to have a lot of interesting material. Al Mohler has also written a fairly extensive analysis on his blog.  Maybe we’ll get around to some of our own discussion of it in the future.

-Matt, the elder brother

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Giving Torture the Silent Treatment

April 23, 2008

I don’t anticipate to strike up as much debate as did our last post did (a review of Ben Stein’s Expelled), but I hope that you find it nonetheless interesting. I must admit that, given my general ignorance about what is going on in the world (at least until we started Consanguinity), I had heard very little about torture. I remember at least one conversation about it with a friend at work, but even then, I didn’t really know what he was talking about. Although I don’t wish to focus on the recent instances of torture committed by the United States in this blog–there is simply too much to condense here–I am operating under the assumption that the following is the case: ever since September 2001, US military abroad has become increasingly permissive about interrogation techniques, and in multiple instances, citizens of foreign governments have been tortured by men and women representing our country.

The most fascinating thing to me about this issue, though, is that I had really heard nothing about it. David Gushee suggests that the Evangelical Right has tried to play this down in order to provide full support for the War in Iraq (i.e. torture is being justified, because it aids the swiftness of finishing the war, or something like this) and to increase national security. In his book, The Future of Faith in American Politics, David Gushee insists that torture is fundamentally wrong and that we, as humans, have the right to be detained without being tortured. It troubles him, and me, that the Evangelical Right has supported (even wavered) on this moral position. Gushee tries to explain why it has come up as he writes:

Long ago, German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote about the perennial human tendency to find exceptions to binding moral rules when these obligations bind just a bit too tightly on us. ‘Hence there arises a natural […] disposition to argue against these strict laws of duty and to question their validity, or at least their purity and strictness; and, if possible, to make them more accordant with our wishes and inclinations, that is to say, corrupt them at their very source, and entirely to destroy their worth.’ (138; Kant’s quote is taken from Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals)

That is to say that when we set up a moral standard, the natural temptation is to weaken it, rationalizing it in any way that we can, because it is simply hard to be consistently moral.

Moral arguments aside (for now), the greatest argument against US-implemented torture is that the US is a signatory to all of the major human rights declarations against torture (The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the Third Geneva Convention-Article 17 (1949), the UN Convention Against Torture (1985)), and not as a nominally assenting bystander, but as a major proponent and advocate for human rights (126). The stance we have proclaimed to the world on torture is not what we have been practicing. As a nation, we have a responsibility to live up to our word, lest all faith in our honesty go out the window.

From this point on, I wish to summarize Gushee’s moral argument against torture. He makes six distinct points, which I have quoted below. I will briefly explain each of them:

  1. Torture violates the intrinsic dignity of the human being, made in the image of God.
  2. Torture mistreats the vulnerable and thus violates the demands of public justice.
  3. Authorizing any form of torture trusts government too much.
  4. Torture invites the dehumanization of the torturer.
  5. Torture erodes the character of the nation that tortures.
  6. Torture risks negative consequences at many levels.

1. Torture violates the intrinsic dignity of the human being, made in the image of God (130).

We, as humans, were made in God’s image; inasmuch as we consider others to be God’s handiwork, we must realize that they are precious to him, regardless of how morally corrupt they might seem, or how destructive of actions they take. Although some argue that there are limits to how far this natural right applies, it does seem clear, as Christians, that it is the rule, and the foundation from which we should build our moral framework on torture.

2. Torture mistreats the vulnerable and thus violates the demands of public justice (131-2).

The Bible preaches frequently against taking advantage of the weak and oppressed. As Jim Wallis points out in his book God’s Politics, it is actually one of the main themes of the Bible, with regard to relative frequency. When someone is imprisoned, he is at his greatest vulnerability. They should experience love and care from our hands, not injustice. God never sides with the oppressor, but the oppressed.

3. Authorizing any form of torture trusts government too much (132-3).

“All like sheep have gone astray…” None of us is immune to temptation. Paul writes in 1 Cor. 10:12 that we should be extra careful not to stumble when we think we are standing firm in our faith. In the same way, people–fallen people–simply cannot handle the power to torture prisoners. What will stop them from giving in to excessive violence? In support of this reason, it has been shown that secret detention facilities are more likely to treat their prisoners worse, since there is no accountability.

4. Torture invites the dehumanization of the torturer (133-4).

Gushee provides an excellent quote from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who won the Nobel Prize for making the world aware of the horrors that the Soviet Gulag commited in their labor camps. He wrote “our torturers have been punished most horribly of all: they are turning into swine, they are departing downward from humanity” (134). The tortured suffers bodily harm; the torturer suffers spiritual harm.

5. Torture erodes the character of the nation that tortures (134-5).

As Americans, we have a collective moral identity and character to uphold. Torture simply stands in the face of the identity we inherited from our forefathers. Do we really wish to reject their example in exchange for a new, grimmer one?

6. Torture risks negative consequences at many levels (135-8).

Gushee is hesitant to even embrace the utilitarian terms that justifying torture necessarily assumes, but he does so to meet his opponents on their own moral ground with more arguments against torture. People who are tortured may talk (and lie, or make something up) just to end the torture. Also, terrorists are only motivated to commit more horrific acts of violence against our nation because of what we are doing to them. Furthermore, Gushee lays aside (for the most part) the ticking bomb scenarios that torture proponents like to use, claiming that they are really only a thing of the movies, not of reality. If such a case should arise, however, the necessary action (torture) should be committed Jack-Bauer stlye without the support of the government.

It was mortifying for me to read about what happened recently at “Abu Ghraib, Gabgram Air Base in Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, and apparently in CIA “black sites” in various unknown locations,” but perhaps the most shocking thing about it was that I hadn’t really heard about it before (123). Why hasn’t the Evangelical community responded more openly against torture? It just seems wrong.


Global Warming is a Life Issue

April 11, 2008

Many politically-involved Christians, such as Dobson, have made the argument that the environment shouldn’t be an important part of their agenda because it pales in comparison to other values issues such as abortion. In fact, I held this stance for quite some time in the past and considered myself a one-issue voter. When I was in college, I was fond of saying that I felt in politics I had two poor choices: kill babies, or trash the environment. Given those choices, I would trash the environment. That was really my view of the two parties as these were the two issues that seemed most important to me. However, I have come to think that this simplified view is simply wrong. I think that this type of view has promoted a culture of callousness within the Christian right toward many other important issues, such as the environment.

I do agree that many environmental ‘save the whales’-type issues fall well short of the importance of abortion. Dying humans are more important than dying whales. However, this is precisely where the environmental debate has changed over the last few years, and I think many Christians have been woefully late to realize this. Global warming is a human life issue. More and more, climate scientists have been coming to a consensus view (something it is very difficult to get scientists to do). The consensus is: 1) Observable global increases in temperature have been occurring at least over the last 50 years, 2) This warming has an anthropogenic cause, namely humans are dumping large quantities of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the environment, 3) We are at a crucial point in time where we can possibly limit the effects of rapid climate change, 4) Climate change will result in increased weather extremes – causing wet regions to become wetter, dry regions to become drier, and extreme weather events (such as hurricanes or heat waves) to become more severe. Thus, it is becoming increasingly difficult to deny that our neglect of this environmental issue will result in a significant decrease in quality of life in many regions and a significant increase in mortality due to increased drought, famine, extreme weather events, and disease. Those who will be most affected by this are those who are already marginalized and have few resources available to adjust to these changes. For example, Africa is likely to be particularly hard-hit, as large regions are expected to have drought and a significant decrease in agricultural productivity. Some of these effects are already unavoidable, and significant changes are already predicted for as early as 2020.  Hundreds of millions of people will be affected in significant ways.

While the effects of global warming are difficult to quantify exactly, as they span a range of severity for different regions, and predictions still have some uncertainty, I have begun to think that this issue is on par with abortion (where 1 million babies are aborted each year in the US).  Climate change will not be as disastrous for most humans as abortion is for aborted babies, but for some it will be, and it affects a lot more humans than does abortion.  I don’t buy Dobson’s argument that promoting this environmental issue will detract from the pro-life issue.  On the contrary, in order to have a consistent ethic of promoting human life we must also act to reduce the effects of climate change as it is likely to result in many deaths of the young, old, and helpless.

The lack of support among Christians in the United States for reducing climate change has another negative effect.  The US is the largest producer of greenhouse gases, yet we are not the ones likely to feel the worst of the negative consequences.  It appears we are absorbed in our own self-interest – unwilling to inconvenience ourselves in order to help others.  This is certainly a poor witness, particularly since many in the world view us as the “Christian” nation, and connecting this self-interest to our Christianity is only a small leap. While this appearance may not be correct, its effects are real.

It is useful to think about why we have a tendency to ignore environmental issues.  I think for most Christians, it isn’t really our self-interest.  For some, it may be a loyalty to the Republican party platform, which promotes other values that we feel are important.  Remember that our loyalty should be to Christ.  For others, it may be a sense that God is in control, and he won’t let us create a major global disaster.  However, if we look through the story of the Bible we see that God constantly gives us choices, and constantly allows humans to make poor choices which can have dramatic consequences.  Think of Eden.  He refuses to save us from ourselves if we don’t let him.  Yet another factor is a  general suspicion of science among Christians.  I think this suspicion is not only misplaced but damaging (perhaps the subject of another post). Another possible reason might be a belief that Christ will be returning soon, and that therefore we shouldn’t worry about destroying the environment.  We’re going to get a new one.  This argument seems pretty tenuous as well.  Christ says that no one knows the day or the hour.  Should we knowingly degrade the lives of potential future generations?  Do we promote being poor stewards in other areas of our life?

I’ll leave you with one final thought – that of the parable of the good Samaritan.  I think that we should look at our political stance on climate change and ask ourselves, “Are we the good Samaritan, or are we the priest?”

-Matt, the elder brother


A Response to “Cold War Déjà Vu: Is Terrorism the New Communism?”

March 22, 2008

Obviously James has had more time for reading than I have. I finally managed to finish Gushee’s book, but haven’t gotten any further in God’s Politics. I do share some of your concerns about the war, and in general think that we should be very careful about when we choose to go to war – avoiding it unless absolutely necessary. I’m not sure how much risk there is in Iraq for the same sorts of human rights violations as occurred in Latin America. However, I presume there is at least some risk. Part of the current strategy of the “surge” was to provide monetary incentives to local militia men in order to get them to stop fighting against us and against rival ethnic factions. At present this appears to be working, but it is at least a tenuous arrangement. Hopefully these funds will not be used in the future to fuel more in-fighting.

Given the current situation I feel that it is our responsibility to remain in Iraq and to try to fix the horrific situation that we have created. Essentially this is a “We broke it, we should fix it,” stance. Thus, I think we should focus most of our energies on figuring out how to rebuild Iraq. However, I think it’s also useful to reflect on whether or not we should have gone in there to begin with, and also to question whether or not our leaders had the right motives for doing so. If Saddam had really obtained weapons of mass destruction, then I think there would have been convincing reason to feel threatened by him. It is still not clear to me whether this was simply a failure of intelligence or rather a ploy (based on weak intelligence) to provide justification for a war that was really waged for ulterior motives. In any case, we should have also considered the consequences of creating a power vacuum in a country with such deep ethnic divides. I feel that the plans for rebuilding Iraq were woefully inadequate. I fear that the combination of questionable motives, unilateral action, poor planning for the future of Iraq, and consistent problems with torture and secrecy has actually increased the threat of terrorist attacks against the US. If nothing else it has drastically increased anti-American sentiment in much of the world – a world that was united behind us after 9/11. Many in the Arab world now view us as an occupying force that is involved in a crusade against them. This cannot be helping us in the war on terror. We must remember that the war on terror cannot be fought simply by military means. It is a war of ideas. Right now, I think we are losing that war. Only history will show what good or bad was accomplished by the war. We have at least succeeded in removing a brutal dictator from power. Hopefully, we haven’t replaced him with something worse.

-Matt, the elder brother


Cold War Déjà Vu: Is Terrorism the New Communism?

March 11, 2008

I’ve also been reading Jim Wallis’ book God’s Politics, but I haven’t managed to get a copy of Gushee’s book, although it sounds like a good one. I tried to order it through Interlibrary Loan, but it turns out that you can’t ask for books unless they’ve been out for about 6 months. It looks like I’ll have to break down and buy a copy. I was sitting around reading Wallis’ book last week, when I came to a reference to Oscar Romero of El Salvador. I had no idea who he was, but I thought that Allison probably would, so I asked her. She wasn’t quite sure, but she walked over to the bookshelf, selected a book and plopped it down beside me, saying: “here, you should read this. It’s about El Salvador.” The book was The Massacre at El Mozote, by Mark Danner, which is about a whole town (El Mozote) that was murdered by the radical right-wing troops trying to stamp out the left-wing guerrillas in 1981. I started reading it immediately, and had a hard time putting it down after I started. The book interested me so much that I started reading another one of Allison’s books on Communism in Latin America: Silence on the Mountain: Stories of Terror, Betrayal and Forgetting in Guatemala, written by Daniel Wilkinson. I have to admit that the impulse to read another book wasn’t inhibited at all by the fact that the semester is half over and it’s hard to be motivated to do my other work.

Not only have I learned a lot about Latin America, US foreign policy during the Cold War and recent history, I could not help but compare American involvement in these events that took place about thirty years ago to the current War on Terrorism and American presence in Iraq. Interestingly enough, this comparison was actually what Jim Wallis had in mind when he mentioned Oscar Romero, a Catholic archbishop in El Salvador who was assassinated for speaking out against human rights violations committed by the American-backed government. One of the main messages of each of these books is that the United States supported dictatorial governments in both El Salvador and Guatemala (as well as numerous others, as Allison informed me), governments that were fighting to suppress communist guerrilla insurgents. The US was aware of the massive human rights violations in each of these cases, but conveniently ignored these inconvenient facts in order to eliminate the threat of Communism from rising up in our back yard.

This concept is summarized well by Wilkinson near the end of his book:

In places like Guatemala, U. S. officials condoned acts of violence that terrorized the civilian population, and the United States even provided material and political support to those who carried them out […] And they dismissed their critics as wooly-headed liberals who were out of touch with […] reality. […] They argued that communism needed to be fought at all costs, but then refused to acknowledge what those costs actually were. (352)

Obviously communism poses very little threat to us today, but since September 11, the Cold-War scare of the old days has been replaced by a new fear of terrorism. We can see, now that the facts about civilian casualties in Latin America are clearly known to all, that we were wrong in giving our full support to governments willing to carry out such brutal acts of violence, a fact that

prompted Bill Clinton to do something that would have been unthinkable for a U. S. president during the cold war: issue a formal apology for the U. S. government’s past support of abusive regimes in Guatemala. (358)

The main threat to human rights in the modern world of terrorism is, in Wilkinson’s words, that

some will […] seek to use the war on terrorism as a pretext for their own acts of terror. (353)

Now there is no doubt that acts such as September 11 are terrorism, and there is also no doubt that such acts should not be tolerated. Another thing is equally sure, however: we must not allow or commit acts of terror in order to keep our private world free from terror. It is very difficult for us, the American public, to know the exact motives of our political leadership in going to war. One of the things that Jim Wallis points out time and again, is that when we first entered Iraq, more than 50% of the population thought that there was a direct relationship between the 2001 Sept. 11 bombings and our war against Saddam Hussein. Also, facts such as the total absence of the alleged weapons of mass destruction in Iraq insinuate that there is more at stake in American involvement in the Middle East than fighting terrorism and removing terroristic leadership. In the case of Cold-War Latin America, it wasn’t until the smoke had cleared, bodies had been dug up, classified documentation had been released and the global political climate had cooled off that the truth was made known. When it was, it became clear that the United States had implicitly supported acts of terror.

A common enemy can bring political unity. After Sept. 11, Americans joined hands to mourn the dead and begin to rebuild what had been destroyed. The common enemy (terrorists) even provided immense support for a preemptive war in the Middle-East. Over the last few years I have basically ignored arguments for or against the war, because it is so hard to sort it all out. I found myself supporting it, because I felt like it was necessary, but hating it, because no one wants to be at war. I have begun to question our government’s motives and our initial justification for entering Iraq. All in all, I don’t know what to think (and would greatly welcome your opinions). What I don’t want, is to hear twenty years from now about archaeologists digging up countless skeletons of Iraqi children who were massacred needlessly, all in the name of national security. It was the fear of communism that enabled us to sweep those war crimes under the rug. Let’s make sure that history is not repeating itself now, simply because we are afraid. There is no need for Cold-War déjà vu.

I realize that this post is not quite as structured or possibly as well-thought-out as previous posts, but it is my natural response to what I have been reading and thinking about lately. Perhaps it is appropriate at the same time: it is hard to know what to think about the War in Iraq, because the water is so muddy.

-James, the younger brother


A Response to “What’s Wrong with the Religious Right:”

March 7, 2008

It has been exciting to see so much activity on Consanguinity this week. I enjoyed reading the comments on Matt’s post, which is why I have chosen to recap that discussion and provide my own take on it. Matt established a growing problem in the Religious Right, excessive partisanship, and reminded us that our only commitment is to Christ and the Church, not to any political entity, which reminds me of some of my favorite words that Jesus spoke. Pilate asks him “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?” Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.” Clearly divine citizenship is of a greater kind than worldly citizenship.

The interesting question debated in the comments is this: is it right for someone to abstain from voting between two presidential candidates that he cannot fully endorse, even if one is clearly more compatible with his political views? This question has been a hot topic ever since James Dobson said that he could not vote for John McCain on account of his views on abortion and stem-cell research. It does seem, however, that McCain supports the general political stance that Dobson would support, when these two issues are cast aside. It must be true, then, that in Dobson’s view, it would be better for John McCain to be President of the United states than a Democratic candidate. What possible benefit could come from such a stance, which at first glance seems arrogant and disrespectful of our privilege to vote? I wish to briefly consider the pros and cons of such a move.

First, James Dobson has a lot of visibility as a religious figure in the United States. His decision to abstain from voting for president has already made a splash and may go a long way to provide an impetus for change within the Republican party, or perhaps within the Evangelical Church’s voting base, to find candidates with Biblical views. In this way, his abstaining becomes a kind of “civil disobedience,” inasmuch as he means to bring about political change by doing so. It is important to see that a normal citizen, deprived of the visibility of someone such as James Dobson, has very little leverage to bring about this kind of change, which means that it is much harder for a private citizen to justify abstaining.

While it is hard for me to make an overall judgment in this matter, I see some real potential dangers with this move. First of all, if enough evangelicals follow suit by not voting, “Roe v. Wade” will stay alive for another 25 years, and it won’t be God’s judgment on America, but the Evangelical church that is to blame for the thousands of babies being aborted daily. Second, many may not understand that Dobson’s move is largely based on his significant visibility, or misunderstand him in another way, which could ultimately lead to a laxidasical stance toward voting in general. Third, Dobson may now be perceived as arrogant and politically “holier than thou” by non-Christians all across America, which can ultimately become yet another barrier hindering the progress of the Gospel.

Matt helped us see that the Religious Right needs to change. It is much harder to see how that should be accomplished.

-James, the younger brother


What’s Wrong with the Religious Right

March 1, 2008

That title get your attention? As a result of our current discussion on religion and politics, James and I have been doing some reading. First off, we started reading a book called God’s Politics: Why the right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It by Jim Wallis. I’ve made it about a third of the way through the book so far and while I don’t agree with everything he has to say I think he certainly provides some good food for thought. A second book I have started reading, which is good enough that it has halted my progress in reading Wallis’s book, is The Future of Faith in American Politics: The Public Witness of the Evangelical Center, by David Gushee. While I am only a fraction of the way through the book so far I can say that I don’t think I’ve seen a more reasonable discussion of evangelical involvement in politics. Either of these books is worth a read if you’re interested in these topics, but I particularly recommend the latter. A central idea in Gushee’s book is that the proper way for evangelicals to relate to government is in terms of a “public witness.” That is, the ultimate goal of our involvement with politics is to bring others to Christ. I think that in many ways this reflects our initial discussion on the purpose of government.

Now to the subject of today’s post, in the first part of his book Gushee embarks on a description of the current “evangelical right” and “evangelical left.” After describing each of these cultural groups he goes on to explain what he thinks is good and bad about each. Since probably most of the readership of this blog is right-leaning, I feel that the most useful way to spend my time in this post is in looking at Gushee’s criticisms of the evangelical right. His primary objection is that the evangelical right has become too partisan. He proposes that the evangelical right has begun to intentify the interests and values of the Church of Jesus Christ with the agenda of the Republican Party. His claim is that the American evangelical right acts as a bloc within the Republican Party and that therefore it acts both to promote the general values of the Republican Party and to promote its own power within the party. And what exactly is wrong with this? Well, a man cannot serve two masters. Therefore the Church cannot both be serving Christ and be a bloc within a political party. Simply put, the Church must declare allegiance to Christ and not to the GOP. He argues that the evangelical right have in many cases adopted the party line on matters that are not grounded in scripture. For example, he points out that in some cases evangelical right leaders have uncritically defended Republican politicians who were convicted in ethical scandals. As Christians we must enter politics with a fierce independence from partisanship and an unswerving loyalty to Christ.

This criticism harks back to a childhood memory of mine. I was probably in my early teens when the family was gathered at my grandparent’s house discussing an upcoming election. I was struck by a comment that my aunt (Carol) made. She said, “We don’t always for the Republican; we vote for the best man.” Given my child-like black-and-white view of politics, this statement made quite an impression on me (obviously since I still remember it). I could see the wisdom evident in it, but it somewhat startled my sensibilities. I had fallen prey to the trap of identifying the values of a political party with Christ’s values. When we approach politics as followers of Christ we must always keep our political allegiances in check. We must constantly ask ourselves whether the values we are promoting align with God’s. I challenge each of you to use the current election year as an opportunity to examine your political stances and ask yourself whether those stances are representative of Christ. Gushee suggests a litmus test: do you have the power to say no to your favorite politician or party?

A further criticism that Gushee has for the right is that their moral agenda is too narrow. Christians should be a voice and a witness in all moral matters. Again, this brings back the idea of a witness. What does it say about us as Christians if we devote all of our time to say…opposing gay marriage, while we ignore other big issues that are clearly of utmost concern to our current society, such as caring for the environment? After all, did not God call Adam to care for creation? What does it say about us if we spend all of our time campaigning against abortion and then turn our eyes as our government tortures other human beings? Others will see us as people who don’t really care about the common good and our witness will be damaged. They will certainly be unwilling to listen to our voice on matters that are more culturally controversial. Imagine if the Church could be a consistent voice for the common good, one that transcended political boundaries and special interests. That would be a powerful witness indeed. I hope that this post has gotten you thinking, and that perhaps it will start some discussion. In our remaining posts on religion and politics, James and I will get more into the specifics of what we think this “common good” is. That is, “What is the Christian platform?”

-Matt, the elder brother