Quote of the Day

“our work — like the journalism we critique — should be judged on the merits of its content; that it wouldn’t much matter if our work was written by a committee consisting of George Soros, Bill Clinton, and Jane Fonda, as long as it was factual and accurate.”

–Jamison Foser, Media Matters For America responding to conservatives who argued that Media Matters should be ignored simply because it is a progressive organization.

Obama on Religion and Protecting the Environment

Just as he did last week, Barack Obama has raised questions again about the intersection between religion and political philosophy. Obama was speaking in Iowa about climate change from a religious perspective:

Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois, said Sunday that the separation of church and state should not force the people of the United States to “leave [their] religion at the door before entering the public square” and that, indirectly, faith informs politics.

“Our faith informs our values, and I think we’d all agree that our values inform our politics more than they have over the last six years,” the Illinois senator said at an interfaith forum in downtown Des Moines.

Obama said that too often religious leaders use faith to “exploit what divides us” by saying that the only issues that matter are abortion, gay marriage, school prayer, and intelligent design.

“Everyone in this room knows that’s not true,” Obama said.

He said there are other challenges that can unite people of faith, one of them being the issue of climate change.

“The bible tells us that when God created the earth, he entrusted us with the responsibility to take care of that earth,” he said. “It is a responsibility to ensure that this planet remains clean and safe and livable for our children, and for all of God’s children.”

As I noted before, I would prefer that political candidates follow the example in this clip from the fictitious Republican presidential candidate Arnold Vinick on The West Wing and keep religion entirely separate from politics. Unfortunately in looking at political candidates it is never going to be possible to find one we agree with in all respects, and the reality of American politics might also make someone like Obama more likely to be able to win.

Fortunately Obama has demonstrated he understands the concept of separation of church and state and his comments provide a useful lesson on the relationship between secular politics and religious beliefs. Secularism is frequently distorted by the religious right which claims it is an anti-religious viewpoint, forgetting that historically it was religious leaders such as Roger Williams who were the strongest defenders of the concept of separation of church and state.

Candidates have a moral philosophy which may or may not be influenced by religious teachings. While the American heritage of separation of church and state includes the view that religious teachings should not be given a special legitimacy to determine law, this does not mean that religious teachings must be entirely ignored.

There are general moral principles which most agree to regardless of whether these derive from religion or humanistic philosophies. For example, we can agree that murder is bad and should be prohibited by the state and the inclusion of this belief in religious teachings does not make this any less a universal moral view. Similarly many can agree on the value of protecting the environment, regardless of whether this derives from a religious viewpoint.

Religious teachings must be questioned and often excluded from law when religious teachings include views which are more unique to certain religions. While religious views should not be rejected solely because they are religious, American tradition is that religious views not be considered correct merely because they stem from religion. Ignoring for the moment the fact that religious works can often be used to argue both sides of these questions, finding a religious prohibition against homosexuality or stem cell research cannot be taken as sufficient grounds to enact legislation. Similarly, even many who are religious understand that the bible cannot be taken literally as an explanation for scientific questions such as the creation of the universe and the development of life and biblical explanations have no place in science classes.

Once again, while Barack Obama may fail my Arnold Vinick test (as do the other candidates), Obama does at least show an understanding of the essential meaning of separation of church and state.

Frank Rich on The “Good Germans” Among Us

Frank Rich has an excellent op-ed regarding public opinion over the Iraq war entitled The “Good Germans” Among Us. He begins:

“BUSH lies” doesn’t cut it anymore. It’s time to confront the darker reality that we are lying to ourselves.

Ten days ago The Times unearthed yet another round of secret Department of Justice memos countenancing torture. President Bush gave his standard response: “This government does not torture people.” Of course, it all depends on what the meaning of “torture” is. The whole point of these memos is to repeatedly recalibrate the definition so Mr. Bush can keep pleading innocent.

By any legal standards except those rubber-stamped by Alberto Gonzales, we are practicing torture, and we have known we are doing so ever since photographic proof emerged from Abu Ghraib more than three years ago. As Andrew Sullivan, once a Bush cheerleader, observed last weekend in The Sunday Times of London, America’s “enhanced interrogation” techniques have a grotesque provenance: “Verschärfte Vernehmung, enhanced or intensified interrogation, was the exact term innovated by the Gestapo to describe what became known as the ‘third degree.’ It left no marks. It included hypothermia, stress positions and long-time sleep deprivation.”

Still, the drill remains the same. The administration gives its alibi (Abu Ghraib was just a few bad apples). A few members of Congress squawk. The debate is labeled “politics.” We turn the page.

While the entire column is well worth reading, the heart of the column comes a little later:

I have always maintained that the American public was the least culpable of the players during the run-up to Iraq. The war was sold by a brilliant and fear-fueled White House propaganda campaign designed to stampede a nation still shellshocked by 9/11. Both Congress and the press — the powerful institutions that should have provided the checks, balances and due diligence of the administration’s case — failed to do their job. Had they done so, more Americans might have raised more objections. This perfect storm of democratic failure began at the top.

As the war has dragged on, it is hard to give Americans en masse a pass. We are too slow to notice, let alone protest, the calamities that have followed the original sin.

In April 2004, Stars and Stripes first reported that our troops were using makeshift vehicle armor fashioned out of sandbags, yet when a soldier complained to Donald Rumsfeld at a town meeting in Kuwait eight months later, he was successfully pilloried by the right. Proper armor procurement lagged for months more to come. Not until early this year, four years after the war’s first casualties, did a Washington Post investigation finally focus the country’s attention on the shoddy treatment of veterans, many of them victims of inadequate armor, at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and other military hospitals.

We first learned of the use of contractors as mercenaries when four Blackwater employees were strung up in Falluja in March 2004, just weeks before the first torture photos emerged from Abu Ghraib. We asked few questions. When reports surfaced early this summer that our contractors in Iraq (180,000, of whom some 48,000 are believed to be security personnel) now outnumber our postsurge troop strength, we yawned. Contractor casualties and contractor-inflicted casualties are kept off the books.

It was always the White House’s plan to coax us into a blissful ignorance about the war. Part of this was achieved with the usual Bush-Cheney secretiveness, from the torture memos to the prohibition of photos of military coffins. But the administration also invited our passive complicity by requiring no shared sacrifice. A country that knows there’s no such thing as a free lunch was all too easily persuaded there could be a free war.

After further discussion, again all of which is worth reading, he concludes:

Our humanity has been compromised by those who use Gestapo tactics in our war. The longer we stand idly by while they do so, the more we resemble those “good Germans” who professed ignorance of their own Gestapo. It’s up to us to wake up our somnambulant Congress to challenge administration policy every day. Let the war’s last supporters filibuster all night if they want to. There is nothing left to lose except whatever remains of our country’s good name.

There is some protest in this country, which the right unsuccessfully tries to write off as protests of a radical left fringe. There is no doubt that the Democrats have been failures as an opposition party, too frequently toning down protests out of fear of being labeled unpatriotic or soft on terrorism. It remains the Republicans who are most directly complicit in these acts which makes it impossible to see them as being fit to continue to govern regardless of the faults of the Democrats.

The Nazi reference has resulted in protest from the conservative blogosphere. Most of the criticism of this column is easily disregarded as conservatives ignore, the ethics of the situation, the lack of efficacy of torture, and how these acts ultimately harm the United States. The Van Der Galiën Gazette has a more balanced comment as he does acknowledge that “the treatment of prisoners is truly embarassing to the US. Gitmo, Abu Ghraib, etc. have done great damage to America’s image.” Unfortunately he also writes, “With regards to the treatment of prisoners Rich compares the US to… Nazi Germany (as liberals are so fond of doing these days with anyone and everyone they disagree with).”

This is certainly true of some liberals, and Michael might have been overly-influenced by a recent attack on him from one of the more off the wall liberal blogs in a dispute which did involve the over-use of Nazi comparisons. I do have three objections to this, the first being that, while sometimes true, this is hardly characteristic of the majority of liberals. Secondly, Rich was quoting conservative writer Andrew Sullivan, not a liberal, in making the Nazi comparisons. Thirdly, there are some situations in which Nazi comparisons are valid. In this case Rich does draw a valid parallel.

It is important in making any comparisons to Nazi Germany that we are looking at a considerable difference in degree. That doesn’t rule out utilizing such analogies. American treatment of prisoners is not any where near as bad as the atrocities committed by the Nazis, but not being as bad as the Nazis is hardly a meaningful defense. This is especially important as, in dealing with those who might turn to terrorism, this is largely a battle of hearts and minds. If we are seen as the moral equivalent of the Nazis, regardless of whether those thinking this understand that the Nazis were far worse, we have no chance to win this battle.