X-tians: The Last Stand

Tim Watkin says the Republicans are hoisted by their own values. James Dobson’s announcement that the religious Right will not support a pro-choice candidate is more than a blow to Rudy Giuliani’s candidacy, he says. The statement also “shows just how the Republicans have gotten themselves tangled in knots over all things moral and signals a turning point for the religious right in America.”

But for the religious Right, the only “value” that seems to matter is sexual purity, rigidly defined. Is that to be the sole measure of a leader?

Studies over the years have repeatedly shown that integrity is core to successful leadership; the hard part is deciding what integrity means to us as voters. A lack of hypocrisy seems to be the gold standard these days. But what about a willingness to admit and apologize for mistakes? Or simple honesty? Is an entirely untainted virtue now required? I’ve spoken to university students whose wanna-be politician friends even in their early twenties abstain from anything with even a whiff of controversy. Is that really the best preparation for wise leadership? In political terms, is it worse to tap your foot under a bathroom door, cheat on your spouse or start illegal wars? These are all moral judgments.

The left tends to scoff at the right’s emphasis on morality, but it has its own set of moral no-goes – just look at their criticism of presidential lies, illegal wars and torture, and politicians denying women the right to choose an abortion.

Still, it’s true that those on the religious right have made “character” a core issue in US elections and placed a disproportionate weight on “values” over policy. Their stands on candidate morality are now so entrenched, and their obsession with sexual purity so deeply embedded, that it seems no one among them has the ability to step back and see how insignificant those demands may be in terms of leadership performance.

The great leaders in US history would all trip over one moral hurdle or another. Washington had slaves, Roosevelt had a mistress and Jefferson had both.

I disagree that we lefties “scoff” at morality. Rather, we prioritize morality differently. Starting illegal wars is a serious offense against humanity; consensual sexual acts ain’t nobody else’s business. In any event, Watkin says, the religious Right’s quest for absolute purity has reached a dead end.

They elected a president who ticked all the right boxes but turned out to be an inept leader, while the candidates who tick the boxes this time are proving to be too bland, too lightweight or too out of touch with modern life. They have chosen sexual morality as their defining issue. Politically, they’ve painted themselves into a corner.

The truth is that other values are going to win next year’s election – sound judgment, competence, team-building, compassion. After dominating American politics for a generation, the religious right finds itself out of step with mainstream American, and even with many of its conservative pals.

I’ll take compassion over morality any day. In fact, I’d say that a person without compassion cannot be genuinely moral, no matter what rules of conduct he follows. But a compassionate person generally will do the right thing by his fellow human beings, rules or no rules. Sound judgment and competence sound pretty good to me, too.

Steven Thomma of McClatchy Newspapers says the power of the religious Right within the GOP is on the wane.

Today, their nearly three-decade-long ascendance in the Republican Party is over. Their loyalties and priorities are in flux, the organizations that gave them political muscle are in disarray, the high-profile preachers who led them to influence through the 1980s and 1990s are being replaced by a new generation that’s less interested in their agenda and their hold on politics and the 2008 Republican presidential nomination is in doubt.

“Less than four years after declarations that the Religious Right had taken over the Republican Party, these social conservatives seem almost powerless to influence its nomination process,” said W. James Antle III, an editor at the American Spectator magazine who’s written extensively about religious conservatives.

“They have the numbers. They have the capability. What they don’t have is unity or any institutional leverage.”

The Religious Right never had absolute power in the Republican Party. It never got the Republican president and Republican Congress to pursue a constitutional amendment banning abortion, for example.

But it did have enormous clout in party politics and a big voice in policy, and it’s lost much of both heading into 2008.

Worse for the religious Right, there may be an anti-Christian backlash brewing. David Van Biema writes for Time:

Back in 1996, a poll taken by Kinnaman’s organization, the Barna Group, found that 83% of Americans identified themselves as Christians, and that fewer than 20% of non-Christians held an unfavorable view of Christianity. But, as Kinnaman puts it in his new book (co-authored with Gabe Lyons) UnChristian, “That was then.”

Barna polls conducted between 2004 and this year, sampling 440 non-Christians (and a similar number of Christians) aged 16 to 29, found that 38% had a “bad impression” of present-day Christianity. “It’s not a pretty picture” the authors write. Barna’s clientele is made up primarily of evangelical groups.

Kinnaman says non-Christians’ biggest complaints about the faith are not immediately theological: Jesus and the Bible get relatively good marks. Rather, he sees resentment as focused on perceived Christian attitudes. Nine out of ten outsiders found Christians too “anti-homosexual,” and nearly as many perceived it as “hypocritical” and “judgmental.” Seventy-five percent found it “too involved in politics.”

Not only has the decline in non-Christians’ regard for Christianity been severe, but Barna results also show a rapid increase in the number of people describing themselves as non-Christian. One reason may be that the study used a stricter definition of “Christian” that applied to only 73% of Americans. Still, Kinnaman claims that however defined, the number of non-Christians is growing with each succeeding generation: His study found that 23% of Americans over 61 were non-Christians; 27% among people ages 42-60; and 40% among 16-29 year olds. Younger Christians, he concludes, are therefore likely to live in an environment where two out of every five of their peers is not a Christian.

This is a healthy development for all of us. For example, at some point in the future the Republican Party might be forced to campaign on issues that actually matter to the running of government instead of by stirring up fear and resentment among various factions of whackjobs. This might bring the GOP back to some semblance of sanity and increase the number of politicians in Washington who give a bleep about good government.

And it might also be a good thing for Christianity. I dimly remember that there’s more to Christianity than stoning transgressors for unauthorized sexual practices. Maybe someone will look into that.

Update: See also “A Nation of Christians Is Not a Christian Nation.”

Update 2:Militant Atheists Are Wrong.” Clever.

“I never compromised my humanity.”

You must read this Washington Post article about a group of World War II veterans who were interrogators of Nazi prisoners. Petula Dvorak writes,

When about two dozen veterans got together yesterday for the first time since the 1940s, many of the proud men lamented the chasm between the way they conducted interrogations during the war and the harsh measures used today in questioning terrorism suspects.

Back then, they and their commanders wrestled with the morality of bugging prisoners’ cells with listening devices. They felt bad about censoring letters. They took prisoners out for steak dinners to soften them up. They played games with them.

“We got more information out of a German general with a game of chess or Ping-Pong than they do today, with their torture,” said Henry Kolm, 90, an MIT physicist who had been assigned to play chess in Germany with Hitler’s deputy, Rudolf Hess.

Blunt criticism of modern enemy interrogations was a common refrain at the ceremonies held beside the Potomac River near Alexandria. Across the river, President Bush defended his administration’s methods of detaining and questioning terrorism suspects during an Oval Office appearance.

Several of the veterans, all men in their 80s and 90s, denounced the controversial techniques. And when the time came for them to accept honors from the Army’s Freedom Team Salute, one veteran refused, citing his opposition to the war in Iraq and procedures that have been used at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

“I feel like the military is using us to say, ‘We did spooky stuff then, so it’s okay to do it now,’ ” said Arno Mayer, 81, a professor of European history at Princeton University.

When Peter Weiss, 82, went up to receive his award, he commandeered the microphone and gave his piece.

“I am deeply honored to be here, but I want to make it clear that my presence here is not in support of the current war,” said Weiss, chairman of the Lawyers’ Committee on Nuclear Policy and a human rights and trademark lawyer in New York City. …

…”We did it with a certain amount of respect and justice,” said John Gunther Dean, 81, who became a career Foreign Service officer and ambassador to Denmark.

“During the many interrogations, I never laid hands on anyone,” said George Frenkel, 87, of Kensington. “We extracted information in a battle of the wits. I’m proud to say I never compromised my humanity.”

If you’re a history buff, you’ll want to read the whole thing. Fascinating stuff. And you’d think any supporter of Bush’s interrogation “methods” would feel ashamed, wouldn’t you?

Well, forget that. Apparently the World War II guys didn’t have to rely on torture because they were dealing with a better class of people than interrogators must handle today.

That’s right. Nazis were nicer. Captain Ed explains,

It must be said, however, that they faced a different enemy in a different war. The Germans fought to expand territory through traditional warfare, at least as arrayed against the US and the West. While they conducted sabotage missions in the US through espionage, they did not use terrorist infiltrators to attempt to kill thousands of American civilians. They also did not face religious extremists who believed that death brought them to Allah and 72 waiting virgins for taking out women and children. One can make a case that the civilized techniques of PO Box 1142 worked because their detainees also believed themselves civilized and members of the Western culture.

More civilized? Um, the Holocaust? Ring any bells?

The eternally dim Sister Toldjah asked,

Does the Post believe interrogators would have gotten the same information from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed by taking him out to a steak dinner and/or playing games with him instead of waterboarding him (an aggressive interrogation tactic which, btw, saved lives)?

Of course, it’s possible interrogators would have gotten different information had KSM not been tortured. They might have, for example, gotten accurate information.

Yesterday on Countdown, Keith Olbermann interviewed former CIA Case Officer Robert Baer about this New York Times article on secret “interrogation” methods. I can’t figure out how to link to the MSNBC video directly, but you can find it on the Countdown page; click on “Bush’s Torture Woes.” Here’s a transcript I made from the video:

BAER: Keith, I’ve spent 21 years in the Middle East working for the CIA, I’ve seen the results of torture, in countries from Egypt to Syria to Saudi Arabia, and the intelligence is dribble. It leads to false leads. People will say anything if the pain is bad enough. It is useless, and I reiterate it is useless. I’ve spent three years now visiting Israeli jails talking to Hamas prisoners, talking to Shin Bet, their intelligence service, and they agree it’s useless. They use traditional police techniques, interrogations, legal interrogations, and they get more out of an investigation than torture.

OLBERMANN: As a professional and an experienced researcher now, I imagine something in the Times story yesterday might have been the most disturbing thing here, just on a professional, what in the world are they doing level, to you, the case of Mohammed, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was severely interrogated over a period of about two weeks, but the problem was as the Times put it, the initial interrogators were not experts on Mr. Mohammed’s background or al Qaeda. Instead of beating him up, does it shock you that the agency could have been much more easily served by having some guy who knew what the hell he was talking about and ask him questions? Because, obviously, a lot of these statements proved to be wildly false, and as you said produced extraordinarily misleading lines of inquiry and perhaps, who knows what else, besides inquiry.

BAER: We know that he lied about his participation in the murder of Danny Pearl, the Wall Street Journal journalist who was killed in Pakistan, his head cut off. He just made that up, that he wielded the knife. He did that under torture. The problem I have is that if he’s our main source of information on what happened on 9/11, and it was extracted by torture, which everyone will tell you is unreliable, I’m not quite sure what happened on 9/11. We’re just adding conspiracy theories when we get information like this, and that’s not to mention that we’re trying to win the hearts and minds of people in the Middle East, but that’s a moral question that someone should answer.

Once the Bushies are pried out of the White House it may take us years to unravel what’s real and what isn’t.

Finally, that wart on the buttocks of humanity known as Jules Crittendon doesn’t even bother making excuses. He just goes right into ridicule mode. But adds —

[T]he apparently genteel program at Fort Hood doesn’t represent the totality of Allied practices re captured enemies in World War II, which though famously a “good war” also included summary executions of Japanese prisoners. After they and/or their comrades were found to have tortured Americans to death.

— which exemplifies the problem, I think. Righties cannot separate vengeance from interrogation. They defend torture not because it’s useful, but because it’s gratifying.

Update: This is sortakinda related — “I Survived Blackwater.”

Conformity Nation

I grew up in a very small and very homogeneous town in which everybody knew everybody. And worse, I grew up in the 1950s, the most conformist decade in American history. It was a time and place in which the least deviation from a narrowly rigid norm was a scandal. Believe me, if the length of a skirt hem was off by so much as an inch, the wearer would feel repercussions. In the early 1960s I rebelled and took to wearing multicolor knee socks instead of the de rigueur white bobbie socks. It was an act of courage, I tell you.

So you’ll understand when I say that the “scandal” over Barack Obama’s lack of a flag lapel pin feels very familiar. We’re seeing the most suffocating, small-minded, über-conformist impulses of America writ large.

I don’t have a thing against flag lapel pins, especially in commemoration of 9/11. On the morning of September 13, 2001, I returned to Manhattan for the first time since the attacks, and I will never forget the flags I saw then, flying all along Madison Avenue and on the scaffolding in Times Square. It was a beautiful thing.

But the flag stands for freedom, and enforced conformity isn’t freedom. I say it’s a gross disrespect of the flag and everything it stands for to require lapel pin wearing as socially mandated proof of patriotism.

This “issue” is symptomatic of our national dysfunction. We can’t have honest discussions about our real critical issues — Iraq, health care, the economy — so we have symbolic squabbles over non-issues like lapel pins and MoveOn.org. Please, people, get a grip.

Bob Herbert writes in today’s New York Times:

The U.S. is going through a transitional period at least as important as the early post-World War II years. New worlds in energy, technology, the economy and global interdependence are either upon us or coming fast.

Yet much of the nation’s top leadership is either wasting its time on complete nonsense or trying with great determination to push us back to the era of top hat and tails.

Among other things, Republicans are trying to figure out what to do about Larry Craig, the loony senator from Idaho who got caught in a public toilet behaving as if he thought the promised land was just one stall away.

Democrats, unable to do anything about George W. Bush’s policy of eternal war in Iraq, found themselves reduced to fulminating in official Congressional proceedings about the latest wackiness from Rush Limbaugh.

Meanwhile, the president and his priceless band of can’t-get-it-right-wingers, are busy vetoing health insurance for children, dreaming up secret torture protocols, funneling lucrative federal contracts to friends and cronies and fulfilling their paramount mission — making the very rich richer.

So much for leadership.

And so much for Conservative Correctness. Righties can take their flag lapel pins and white bobbie socks and whatever else the “CC” police want to enforce and shove ’em where the sun don’t shine.

Update: See also Republican Attack Schtick Entering Backfire Realm.