Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Torture(d) Logic: Defending the Indefensible

It's beginning to look as though one of the highest ideals of democracy, the rule of law, will win the day. The tide is turning in the battle over what to do about allegations that the Bush administration gave not tacit, but explicit approval for interrogation techniques widely described as torture.

Now that President Obama's first 100 days have elapsed, perhaps he will dispossess himself of the need to continue carrying on in "honeymoon mode." For some time now, he has been in the embarrassing position of honeymooning alone anyway. Staking out the moral high ground over the issue of torture and how a responsible democracy deals with it could give the president the annulment his shaky marriage to the congressional minority needs right now.

Another ideal of democracy - transparent self policing - is attempting a comeback. It's not clear yet president Obama sees the situation for what it is: an international, prime-time reality check. Whether he understands it or not, the whole of the civilized world is waiting with bated breath to see if there will indeed be a new kind of America under the leadership of a new kind of president. And rather than attempting to steer events for political gain, Mr. Obama should simply present himself as duty-bound to proceed with investigations because the aforementioned ideals - not to mention a few treaty obligations - demand nothing less.

A certain unrepentant former vice-president may also turn out to be an unwitting ally of president Obama's. The more Dick Cheney asserts the utility of "enhanced interrogation techniques," the deeper the mess he finds himself in. Publicly criticizing a sitting president by stating that his policies have "weakened" the nation serve only to arm the president with fuel for any potential fire fight down the road. Say what you want about George W, at least he has had the sense to keep his mouth shut since leaving office. As for Mr. Cheney, the best he can hope for is to go the way of a sacrificial lamb. To be revered as a political martyr is probably too much to ask.

What the Republicans need right now is a Lowell P. Weicker for the times, he of Watergate notoriety for his willingness to go after President Nixon. Today's GOP, however, might be too busy "luxuriating in loathing" the new president (to steal a phrase from George Will). But, like the sinking Titanic Watergate turned out to be, it probably won't be long before a few Republican rats see the light and scurry for cover. (Condoleeza Rice: I didn't authorize anything; I merely conveyed the authorization...) Eventually, Republicans more concerned with the long view of their political careers will demand justice for the principals in Torturegate and disavow the utility of standing behind those who defend torture.

The problem with defending the indefensible is that it takes on a kind of mission creep which eventually exposes the cavernous flaws in its 'tortured' logic. The Republican minority will make certain any investigations or hearings become politicized and take on the aura of a circus. President Obama, nonetheless, must not shrink from any unpleasantness doing the right thing will bring. The world is watching.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Christian Political and Moral Influence: On the Wane

In his recent Newsweek submission The End of Christian America, Jon Meacham discusses the waning influence of Christianity in American life. Citing research from the American Religious Identification Survey and the Pew Forum On Religion and Public Life, Meacham makes note of the declining numbers of self-identified Christians - down 10% since 1990; the doubling of the religiously unaffiliated - to 16%; and the quadrupling of those willing to describe themselves as atheist or agnostic - to over 3.5 million.

While these statistics indicate a clear trend toward an increasingly secular society, the matter of convincing those disposed to a religious way of life that this is a good thing not only for secularists but for Christians as well, becomes an important issue.

First, regarding concerns of those who fear that becoming more secular means becoming more evil, this patently absurd myth must be exposed - and expelled. Equating secularism with amorality is a serious misjudgment based upon profound ignorance and fear - an entirely unenlightened perspective that is increasingly, and thankfully, being understood as the relic of religious prejudice that it truly is.

Preserving the richness of religious aspects of our culture is dependent precisely upon the disentanglement of church and state. While the constructive engagement of religion and politics is an integral aspect of our cultural makeup, keeping church and state the separate entities they were intended to be gives us all that is good and honorable about religious influence. Affairs of the state, however, are rightly managed in a wholly secular sphere. As Barack Obama once stated, "Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific values."

As secular interests grow their influence, the question arises as to whether they can truly offer a more enlightened brand of morality. Analyzing the impact religious morality has had on civilization reveals both its positive as well as negative effects. That a newer, secular morality might better serve modern humanity is a notion that, while disconcerting to many religious conservatives, has much about it to celebrate. Not only have many plainly misguided values been propagated largely by religious concerns, but these very same concerns have also been credited with promoting many positive values the origins and essence of which are by no means uniquely religious.

As to whether or not political matters are rightly the purview of religious institutions, recent experience in America plainly reveals just how maladaptive such a condition can be. The most conspicuously political religious group - Christian evangelicals - have proved to be a divisive force in American society, compelling many of their leaders to rethink the wisdom of infusing the body politic with overtly religious morality and rhetoric. In fact, the emergence of so-called moderate evangelicals is stemming the tide of political influence by their more traditionally hard-core brethren.

With Christian influence presently in decline, the time may be right for secular interests to prove themselves up to the challenge of promoting a kind of morality that in practice is capable of serving not only the dynamic and diverse culture that is America, but also mankind itself.