Friday, July 20, 2007

Putting the "Human" in human rights

Normally I blog about the interaction between religion and politics, but this is a subject near and dear to my heart, so I thought I'd respond. Today, President Bush issued an Executive Order directing that torture is not to be used on terrorist prisoners. Finally.

Torture is a subject that I know a lot about. Two years ago, I wrote a grant to study in Europe on the development of the international norm against torture in international law. I've read the primary sources from the Nuremburg trials and the ICJ/World Court findings on torture. I've talked to victims and Amnesty International specialists. I can quote the history of torture beginning with the ancient Greeks, up through medieval France, to modern day conflicts in Algeria and dictators in small Latin American countries. I know the sobering statistics. I've written the first draft of a book which will ouline a history of torture in international law. I know torture law as well as anyone might be said to know it.

The current Executive Order (EO) is both a step forward and a step backward for human rights law. In the order, Bush asserts that the US is still not pursuant to Geneva III, the most recent international convention on justice in military law, where terror suspects are concerned. Geneva III outlines the torture guidelines followed by nearly every other country in the world. For the President to continue to deny US participation is a danger to our troops, and to our international reputation. The President cannot claim that we are in Iraq on a human rights mission to aid the Iraqi people until we are fully party once more to that treaty, not just for some but for all our prisoners. It is a larger disgrace upon our country's reputation than most people realize.

On the other hand, at least the current EO does expressly forbid torture, in the same language that Geneva III uses. It also forbids degrading treatment, and mandates the provision of basic necessities like food and clothing. That the US has not thus far seen fit to write into law these basic human rights is a mark upon our national honor, but better to right a wrong later than never.

The biggest problem with this EO is that it continues not to provide due process to CIA prisoners. The biggest difference between the current (as of this order) policy and the official Geneva conventions is that Geneva III provides that prisoner sentences must be decided through a court. Bush doesn't think that he should have to provide legal rights to his prisoners. Frankly, I'm not surprised. Yesterday he issued another EO declaring that all executive branch employees are immune to prosecution from a US Attorney (a position which decimates the constitutional idea of checks and balances). Bush sneers at the idea of rule of law in this nation, so why should he afford the rule of law to suspects in another nation? The order also fails to ensure oversight from international groups like the Red Cross, whose traditional job it has been to ensure the health and safety of prisoners. The fact that there is no ensured impartial oversight means that frankly this order lacks teeth. It's a feel-good measure more than a serious policy change.

Even with that bad news, however, this EO may be viewed as a victory for those like myself who have claimed that the international moral norm against torture is strong enough to withstand the testing of even a superpower like the US. The pressure from both US citizens and international powers has finally caused Bush to cave and protect US prisoners from torture. He places the decisions about interrogation regimes in the hands of the director of the CIA, which means that now we can only pray that the director is a sane and humanistic man. I will continue to believe that no one with compassion could authorize a torture regime, so now we must pray that the person in whose hands these decisions rests will find the morality to do the right thing.

The right to bodily integrity is at the very heart of every other human right that mankind has ever held dear. Without it, there is no right to freedom, property, happiness, democracy, or religion. Every other debate pales in the face of the debate over whether it is moral to harm a prisoner in your control. Nearly every other nation on the face of the planet has come to the enlightened conclusion that to torture prisoners is a policy that degrades them both as a nation, and as human beings. I'm glad to say that as of today, the US has taken steps toward rejoining the community of civil nations.

Totally Off-Topic

This has nothing to do with politics or Christianity, but I thought it was wonderful. About a month ago, the NYT did a few articles on cats. I liked this one, which links modern cats' lineage to an ancient form of Middle Eastern wildcat. The article posits that instead of human domesticating them (as with dogs or cows), cats instead domesticated themselves. I agree with the article, it seems like a very cat thing to do.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Oh, Mitt.

Mitt Romney, Republican presidential candidate extraordinaire, put out an ad recently entitled 'Ocean'. Here's a transcript:

GOVERNOR MITT ROMNEY: I'm deeply troubled about the culture that surrounds our kids today.

Following the Columbine shootings, Peggy Noonan described our world as "the ocean in which our children now swim."

She described a cesspool of violence, and sex, and drugs, and indolence, and perversions.

She said that the boys who did the shooting had "inhaled too deeply in the oceans in which they swam."

I'd like to see us clean up the water in which our kids are swimming.

I'd like to keep pornography from coming up on their computers.

I'd like to keep drugs off the streets.

I'd like to see less violence and sex on TV and in video games and in movies.

And if we get serious about this, we can actually do a great deal to clean up the water in which our kids and our grandkids are swimming.

I'm Mitt Romney and I approve this message.

My initial reaction is that I could have written better copy for the ad than apparently Mitt's campaign managers did (Cesspool of indolence and perversions? Really Mitt?), but my secondary reaction to it is confusion.

Let's suppose for a minute that I'm a Republican instead of a liberal, and that this ad actually has a chance of appealing to values that I fall in line with. Republi-Me is a fundamentalist Christian and likes the idea of children having a safer time of it, but I'm not sure that the presentation here turns me on much. He promises reforms, but doesn't give any specific mechanism, and Republi-Me is wary enough of politicians and weary enough of the war to know that promises without plans are a recipe for disaster. I also know that Mitt was Governor of Massachusetts, so I'm a little wary of his 'family values' shtick. Most fundamentalist Christians are divided on whether they think the government should be legislating morality, but I think that even the ones who think that's okay might be wary of Mitt doing the legislating.

But even if I buy that he can bring cultural reforms and that he does have a plan he's not yet telling us about, I'm not sure that the idea comforts Republi-Me that much. Because Republi-Me is a real Republican in the traditional sense of the word, and after the Bush presidency I'm very much in line with the idea that less government is better government. This ad doesn't say 'less' to me. It doesn't say 'cut governmental spending and governmental interference in industry'. This ad says 'The government is going to mess with your private life some more, and we'll need a bigger beauracracy to do it' to me.

In short, I'm not really sure who his target audience is here, other than people who don't think very critically about the soundbytes their politicians throw at them. Seems to me like he overshoots the target for small-government Republicans by implying he's got a plan that's going to mean more government, and undershoots the target for fundie Christian Republicans by not detailing the plan to accomplish any of the hyperbole.

Then again, maybe this is why I'm a Democrat.

Harry Potter redux, part seven.

I don't know why I'm surprised to see it. It's happened with the release of every Harry Potter book and movie thus far, and with the fifth film and seventh book coming out so closely in succession, it shouldn't shock me that it's happening again. Yet somehow it always catches me afresh.

I'm talking about the Christian fundamentalist calls to 'protect kids from Harry Potter'. Witchcraft! cries the Christian establishment. Doorway to the occult! Even satirical site Landover Baptist (which, by the way, I recommend as comedy gold) gets in on the action with an article entitled "Harry Potter Driving Our Children Insane!". The Potter series is in the top ten on the American Library Association's list of 'Most Challenged [for banning] Books' from 1990-2000. Why the worry about these books?

Well, supposedly they promote witchcraft in children. I would argue even this point, but let's grant it for argument's sake. Now let's take a look at some of the most beloved Christian allegories of times past. The Narnia series? Yup, contains magic, children doing magic, and a magical lion that is not-so-subtly associated with Jesus. The Wrinkle In Time series? Yup, contains magic, children participating in magic, and a series of magical creatures not-so-subtly allegorical of angels and demons. Let's assume, for a second then, that the right-wing fundamentalists aren't actually objecting to the magic in the books (which, after all, resembles real-world paganism much like the smiling and dancing orphans in Little Orphan Annie resemble the real-world foster care system).

What could they be objecting to? I would guess that their objections are more about the lack of a clear biblical allegory in the books than anything else. After all, prior to Harry Potter most of the wildly popular children's series did have something to do with Christian symbolism. There wasn't really a series written for children who grew up in time when Christianity wasn't a strong enough cutural influence to shape the narrative of a text. Harry Potter marked the first enduringly popular, completely secularist work for children and young adults that nonetheless addressed questions of morals and ethics. In a time when Christianity was already struggling to impart religion to an increasingly well-informed young population, the Potter books were a serious blow. Thus, the consistant fervor over their content. If it wasn't witchcraft people complained about, it would have been something else. By accurately representing the secular humanist worldview as one which could nonetheless imbue a hero with morals and a strong sense of the good, the Potter books were a church's bad dream. Luckily for the reading public, they're too many people's best fantasy for church criticism to keep them down.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Culture of silence, culture of scared

Big news in the Catholic world the last few days: the LA diocese agreed to pay $660 million in abuse lawsuit settlements. Today, the Vatican released a statement that the

"problem of the abuse of childhood and its adequate protection certainly does not regard only the (Catholic) Church, but also many other institutions".

I personally thought that this was a little tasteless, since it smacks of blame-sharing at a time when the Church should be sucking it up to take responsibility. But it's also sadly true. The majority of Catholic and Protestant congregations don't have policies in place designed to protect children from abusers. This makes the church a haven for paedophiles and molestors.

Part of the problem with church sexual abuse scandals is that the church itself unintentionally creates an atmosphere that is hostile to abuse victims, and therefore friendly to abusers. Churches everywhere preach the 'wickedness' of sex in many forms, whether through pronouncements about abstinence, vilification of church members who are percieved as promiscuous, emphasis on modesty and covering up the (implicitly shameful) body, or crusades against gay people and types of sex outside the missionary position. By contrast, not many sermons are preached about the evils of child molestation. It's such an obvious sin that pastors and priests (rightly) don't feel compelled to mention it. Because of this, though, what children hear on a continuous basis is a message of 'sex is bad, and people who have sex are bad people'.

In a culture that stifles mentions of sex as shameful and ungodly, is it any surprise that victims are reluctant to tell a Christian parent or church leader that they're being abused? A child who's being told weekly that being gay is evil is far less likely to report his male priest's advances than one who knows that he himself won't be looked down upon for the revelation. A church that reliably preaches that non-virgins are sinful may have a lot of trouble convincing young girls to tell a pastor that they are no longer a virgin because their teacher has been abusing them. Despite the Church's good intentions, the messages it's giving about sex and sexual abuse are decidedly mixed, particularly to children whose reasoning capacities aren't developed enough to tell the difference between 'he's sinful for making me do this', and 'I'm sinful for having participated, however unwillingly'.

It's for this reason that every denomination, and every individual congregation, needs to formulate and enforce policies designed to protect children. In an ideal world, the Church would drop its unreasonable sex-phobia (nowhere in the Bible does it directly say anything about many of the stances that the Church has adopted over the years on sex). The optimist in me hopes that one day even churches will come to a more progressive understanding of human sexuality. But in the meantime, steps must be taken to protect children:

  • Adults should never be alone in a room with a single child.
  • Parents should provide teachers and caretakers with a means of identifying them as the parents of their particular child when the child is dropped off into church care, and children should not be released from care to anyone but parents, after the parents provide appropriate identification.
  • All teachers should submit to criminal background checks, and known molestors should not be allowed to teach or supervise children (many states have programs that allow businesses to check whether a person is a sexual criminal for free). This may seem like an obvious step, but most churches have no idea whether the people who teach and watch over their children are criminals or not.

All of these are common-sense tactics to reduce the likelihood of abuse. In a culture where sex is a taboo subject, churches should be obligated to take proactive steps to protect potential victims. Too bad most of them, like the Catholic Church in the LA case, will only issue tepid apologies when it's already decades too late.

Monday, July 16, 2007


On Friday I posted a response to the USA Today letters about gay rights and the Christian church. Those articles were part of a larger series that the paper has been doing about religion (by which they apparently mean Judeo-Christianity, no other faiths have thus far been discussed), and which I anticipate will continue to provide interesting blog-fodder (look for updates and responses on Mondays and Fridays).

Today's piece, entitled "The founders got it right" is all about how the evil government is trying to trample our freedom of religion. The money quote?

Now, the secularist storm troops of the American Civil Liberties Union and its like drive religion from the public square with the mandate of the Everson ruling in hand. Religious symbols are removed from cemeteries, student prayer groups are driven from public facilities, and religious leaders are threatened if they dare speak about political issues from their pulpits.

Let's fact-check this little soundbyte, because it's one that gets repeated ad infinitum by radio personalities and conservative think tanks when they bemoan the de-Christifying of America. "Secularist storm troopers"? Classy. Name calling is always a good way to start a constructive argument. But let's talk about his substantive points, starting with those religious symbols removed from cemeteries. Most likely he's referring here to an internet rumor that the ACLU was attempting to remove cross-shaped gravestones from Arlington. This chain-letter myth gets neatly deconstructed and disproven in an article (including caselaw on this point) from Snopes. Religious symbols on gravestones and monuments are alive and well in our government cemeteries. It's also irresponsible of the author not to check his sources to be sure he's not discussing urban legends as support for his point.

Well, even if he got the cemeteries wrong, surely student prayer groups are no longer allowed in schools? Actually, not so. See You At The Pole is a nationwide group that sponsors prayers around school flagpoles, and student-led school religious groups have over and over been ruled Constitutional. So hmmm. Apparently student prayer groups are alive and well in public facilities.

So what about the religious leaders 'threatened' if they 'dare' talk politics to their flocks? Well, this one's partly true. The IRS allows churches non-profit status, but only so long as they don't endorse particular candidates in an election. The rule of thumb is that churches are allowed to endorse issues but not people. So a pastor is completely free to do a sermon about the evils of abortion, or how stem cell research is murder. Those are political topics. And if the church doesn't care about its non-profit status, the pastor even endorse particular candidates. I personally don't think that this is an unreasonable stance to take (it's always seemed tacky to me for a church to endorse a candidate qua candidate rather than endorse a specific stance on issues). It allows the churches room to preach their message as much as they like, and it avoids the complex campaign-finance issues that could arise from pastors endorsing specific candidates. To recap this one: pastors aren't forbidden to talk about politics at all. They're forbidden to endorse a specific candidate.

In short, everything in that little soundbyte was either a direct lie, or a gross distortion of the truth. It's people like this, giving messages like this in the name of 'protecting Christianity' that give all Christians a bad name. After all, wasn't one of the commandments "Thou Shall Not Lie"?

Sunday, July 15, 2007

These very (post)modern times

Often in church debates today, one hears a pastor or speaker disparage "postmodernism" as the scourge of the Christian church. Postmodernism is supposedly corrupting our children, opening the gap to terrible crimes against morality, and disrupting our understanding of theology. There is a great deal of difficulty to this little soundbyte, mostly because what Protestant theologians mean when they say "postmodernism" and what the rest of the academic community means when they say "postmodernism" are two very different things.

Academic Postmodernism

When an academic says the word 'postmodern' to you, unless he is specifically an architect or a fine arts major, he is probably talking about literary postmodernism. This is a breed of writing that sprouted up in English and philosophy departments around the Western world in the latter half of the twentieth century. It was a reaction and often a critique (in the academic, dialogue-ish sense of critique) of a movement called Modernism (I know, big surprise), which had taken place in those same spheres in the early half of the twentieth century. As a reaction to Modernism, postmodernism is heavily defined relationally; it finds its boundaries in the spaces excluded or questioned by Modernism.

The postmodern writers called for a re-evaluation of the whole concept of modernity, in a 1920-ish sense of the word. The Modernist movement had positioned itself to advocate against widespread ignorance, superstition, and resistance to technological and cultural innovation. Postmodernism, far from advocating a return to those conditions, was a dialogue with modernism about the need to be 'modern'. It consisted of questioning traditional authority structures, experimenting with finding meaning in dialogues outside the traditional means of dialogue. Hence, the famous postmodern authors who broke down constraints of genre or even grammatical conventions to explore new ways of communicating. These authors were not necessarily disagreeing with the ideas that Modernism had brought up (the need to embrace innovation and the need to question orthodoxies that had long stood qua orthodoxy were both strong and common threads for the two movements), but instead were exploring different ways of doing similar things. In this way, postmodernism might be viewed as an extension rather than a debate with the Modernist ideas. Postmodernism was, in a very real way, the efforts of a group of scholars to adapt the ideas of modernism to a newer time and social climate engendered by events like the Vietnam war.

Most literary scholars, in fact, now agree that the postmodern moment has passed and that contemporary writings along that vein are in fact dialoguing with (as opposed to being integrated as part of) the postmodern canon. Postmodernism was a movement situated in a very particular social climate.

Theologians and the 'postmodern' ethos

The explanation given above has nothing to do with what your average pastor means when he says 'postmodernism'. Even if he is aware of the history and the conversations surrounding the idea of modernity, the academic sense of 'postmodern' is almost certainly not what he intends. The catchphrase 'postmodern' is now used almost as a jargon term among Christians, and it roughly denotes the forces in society, whether moral, social, political, institutional, etc. that are opposed for whatever reason to the moral doctrines of the Christian church. In the Christian sense of the term, society's obsession with Paris Hilton is obviously symptomatic of the postmodern condition. It is in opposition to the morals of the church, and a competitor for the primacy of the church in the hearts of potential converts. In the academic sense of the term, it is not clear that this has anything to do with postmodernism at all, because social fascination with an heiress has nothing to do with questioning institutional norms (in fact, if anything it strengthens institutional norms by providing a pervasive image of the wealthy as a specific social class with specific behavioral expectations and obligations).

At any rate, 'postmodern' is a term with very different meanings depending on the context in which it is used. Someone hearing the word in conversation (whether with a pastor or with an academic) must be careful to consider the meaning behind the word, and not to apply with a broad brush a connotation which may not be intended at all.