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October 12, 2005

Torture, the GOP, and the Religious Right


by Jon Basil Utley

When 46 Republican senators vote against the torture of prisoners (total vote 90-9) and President Bush threatens his first veto in five years in order to thwart them, many Americans must wonder about the political and philosophical divide.

Top-ranking generals supported by former Secretary of State Colin Powell sent a letter of support for the McCain-Warner initiative with its 10 co-sponsors. It warned of the consequences for American soldiers in future wars and the very negative effect for America in the war on terror. McCain was a former POW in Vietnam and Warner is one of the strongest hawks in the Senate. One notes also that only one congressman has a son in combat, and McCain, Warner, and John Kerry and Chuck Hagel, also supporters of the bill, are reportedly the only combat veterans in the entire Senate. Republicans in the House were prevented from voting on the issue by their leadership.

As has often been the case with this war, we find the answer among neoconservatives and the Religious Right, the hard-core alliance for war. Neoconservative leaders, almost all without military or business experience, nor with children in combat, have been the "brains," such as they are, behind the attack and subsequent occupation fiasco. Also, some of the conservative establishment, such as the Washington Times and National Review, offer many writers who endorse torture, and the adored Rush Limbaugh made light of the issue.

However, it is the Religious Right (RR) that is less understood. After Abu Ghraib and other revelations of torture and murder, the main spokesmen and institutions of the RR were notably silent; indeed some, Senator Inhofe for example, defended it and, along with several other fundamentalists, cast the only votes against the torture amendment. General Boykin's name also resurfaced. Searching the Internet, one finds silence on the issue of torture from such leading political RR groups such as the Family Research Council, Concerned Women of America, the Christian Coalition, and the American Family Association.

Part of the religious aspect is the simple Armageddon Lobby view, as paraphrased by Tom DeLay, that the Iraq war is "the gateway to the apocalypse." But more profound reasons for this support are analyzed in a brilliant new book by Anatol Lieven, America Right or Wrong. He quotes historian C. Vann Woodward to explain the Religious Right's outlook:

"The true American mission … is a moral crusade on a worldwide scale. Such people are likely to concede no validity whatever and grant no hearing to the opposing point of view, and to appeal to a higher law to justify bloody and revolting means in the name of a noble end. For what end could be nobler, they ask, than the liberation of man…. The irony of the moralistic approach, when exploited by nationalism, is that the high motive to end injustice and immorality actually results in making war more amoral and horrible than ever and in shattering the foundation of the political and moral order upon which peace has to be built."

No wonder religious wars are some of the most brutal and bloody in history. Similarly, in an earlier day, Senator Jesse Helms told members of the UN Security Council "states, above all the United States, that are democratic, and act in the cause of liberty, possess unlimited authority, subject to no external control, to carry out military interventions."

Lieven (and others [.pdf]) compare this view to that of Rousseau and the French Jacobins, who argued that all other European royalist governments were illegitimate:

"If on the one hand the French armies did bring genuine progress to many parts of Europe, they also stirred up a ferocious resistance leading to wars which ravaged Europe for a generation. These conflicts not only led in the end to the crushing defeat of France, they weakened her so badly that she never recovered her preeminence."

Lieven also argues that these views and policies have

"potentially catastrophic results for the struggle against Islamist terrorism. More widely, this messianic attitude leads to a curious but historically very familiar mixture of rampant idealism and complete absence of charity, in the wider biblical sense."

He warns,

"This belief in American innocence, of 'original sinlessness,' is both very old and very powerful. … [It] contributes greatly to America's crowning sin of Pride – the first deadly sin and, in medieval theology, the one from which all other sins originally stem."

Ironically, others see these events as (eventually) having a very negative effect on religious influence in Washington. Christopher Hitchens argues,

"George Bush may subjectively be a Christian, but he – and the U.S. armed forces – have objectively done more for secularism than the whole of the American agnostic community combined and doubled."

The idea that America is "good" and therefore need not show a decent respect to the opinions of mankind runs very deep among those now ruling Washington. Yet the Senate vote against Bush and the religious extremists is a sign that not all is lost in our great nation. We may yet pull back from the brink of endless wars. In fact, the September issue of Foreign Affairs' lead article analyzes polls showing that most Americans do not favor religious war and are very concerned about relations with other nations, in particular that we have become seen as enemies of the whole Muslim world. Almost two-thirds of Americans believe that Washington should be emphasizing diplomacy more than military action.


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  • Jon Basil Utley is associate publisher of The American Conservative and Robert A. Taft Fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. A former correspondent for Knight Ridder in South America, Utley has written for the Harvard Business Review on foreign nationalism and was for 17 years a commentator on the Voice of America. He is director of Americans Against World Empire.

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