Thursday, May 05, 2011

Decency part 2

I grew up in a world where it was a given that torture is always wrong. Or rather, since the rest of the developed world hasn't generally abandoned this most basic principle of human decency, I should emphasize that I grew up in an America where torture was always wrong. Even Republicans acknowledged that.

That's not to say that no one was ever tortured in America's name before Bush II. But at least -- at least -- when it was done back in the day it was done secretly and shamefully. Some people may have believed it necessary, that it was a dirty job that they had to take upon themselves, but they would scarcely have dared to speak of it openly, much less boast of it. They knew that almost everyone saw torture as wrong, as evil, as indecent. Obviously, America has changed.

I wrote a little while ago about "decency" on an individual level, but this time I want to discuss it more as a group or cultural phenomenon. Specifically, I want to know why it is that Mormonism, and Christianity in general for that matter, fails to teach people how to be decent human beings.

After I found out about what really happened in the Mountain Meadows Massacre, I thought there was probably nothing a Mormon could do that I would find particularly shocking. Even though I still believed in the LDS church, I realized that Mormons are nothing special. They're just like any other people: some good, some bad, and some indifferent.

But I was wrong: I could still be shocked. And I was shocked when I found out that at least four Mormons were instrumental in designing and justifying the Bush Administration's torture/war crime regime.

We've long known that in the right circumstances, when ordered to do so, many people will participate in cruelty. Milgram and Zimbardo demonstrated that decades ago. But I'm not talking about low-level flunkies like the ones scapegoated for the Abu Ghraib atrocities. No, these were professionals: lawyers and psychologists. In at least some cases, they were prominent in the local church. And they didn't just work inside the Bush Administration's torture/war crime regime, they helped create it.

But my shock wasn't that Mormons were involved (they're no different than other people, after all), but that (as far as I know) there have been absolutely no ecclesiastical consequences for them. As far as I know, the church has taken no action against any of those people. None. Zero. Zilch. I guess my surprise was just my naïveté showing. It hadn't occurred to me that deliberate involvement in a torture/war crime regime would be just fine with the LDS church (or any other church, for that matter), but apparently it is.

But that's not just a Mormon thing. In America, the more often people attend church, the more likely they are to support torture. Of course, in the case of many Christians, their god has set up his own afterlife torture regime, so I guess it's not all that surprising that they support real-life torture too.

In any event, religion may not be the cause of inhumane attitudes, but it clearly isn't the cure for them either. That's one reason I can't help laughing every time I see some some religious person trying to claim that there's no morality without God. I often can't help wondering if they even know what morality is.

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  1. The Catholic Church turned a blind eye to the Nazi extermination of the Jews. I might be argued they were hostages of a hostile regime. However in the case of the Bush era torture... none of the organized religions of the western world can make that assertion. It is apparent that religion is not the foundation of morality.... it is the foundation for dogma. Nicely written. I enjoyed your thoughts on this.

  2. @ curmudgeon - As I remember (and it was a while ago that I researched it) Pius XI was complacent and didn't do much to stop speak against Hitler, but when Pius XII took power, there were orders from the Vatican sent all over Europe to bishops and clergy and monasteries to do any and all in their power to hide Jews and help them escape death. I believe Pius XII even used his personal estate as a safe-house for refugees. Hitler wanted very badly to take out the Pope, but Mussolini stopped him because he didn't want the people to revolt, most of them being devout Catholics. Pius was definitely a threat to the Third Reich.

    Regardless of that point however, the Catholic Church has stood idly by in countless situations where strong denouncement of violence was needed. But these days, the Catholic Church almost always makes statements denouncing war and violence. Even recently, Benedict (of whom I am no fan) spoke against the violence in Libya. They absolutely denounce torture. And from what I have seen of what the LDS church does in regards to world events, the Catholic Church does a lot more with their platform to urge people and governments to respect human rights.

    I don't know if they'd do anything about Catholics found participating in torture (it would be a local bishop's decision to do anything). Unlike in the LDS church, excommunication is hardly ever done in American Catholicism. There's no "disciplinary" system to speak of, and confession is both anonymous and provides instant absolution. If they're prominent figures, and if their bishop wants to, he can stop them from receiving Communion, like they did to John Kerry during the 2004 presidential campaign. I can't see much else happening besides public statements denouncing torture in general.

    Anyway, I agree with the question you raise here. Why aren't the Christian religions teaching people how to behave like decent human beings? It's clearly not happening. Christians and Catholics and Mormons are all committing crimes and abusing other human beings, and getting away with it.

  3. Thanks for commenting. I think the Roman Catholic Church has a pretty mixed record. Besides their mixed record against the Nazis, they supported oppressive right-wing regimes in Latin America for decades. On the other hand, eventually they generally came around to the side of the oppressed rather than the oppressors, and as Macha said, they're a strong voice for (some) human rights today.

    Unfortunately, though, they've cast away much if not all of their hard-won moral authority through decades of child abuse and coverups. That and their completely irrational and very harmful opposition to artificial birth control make it impossible for me to accept the RCC as any sort of moral leader.


What do you think?