Conjuring Unholy Ghosts

Mitt Romney had his Come-to-Jesus moment on Dec. 6 at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas, when he defended his Mormon faith as he seeks the nomination of a party that has been largely taken over by Christian fundamentalists.

Romney compared himself with a previous candidate from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, who went before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in September 1960 to confront hostility to his Catholic faith. But the similarities end there. Kennedy explained to the Baptists and other Protestants assembled in Houston, some of whom were openly hostile to the idea of a Catholic president, that he was “not the Catholic candidate for president,” but rather was “the Democratic Party’s candidate for president who happens also to be a Catholic.” He argued that the separation of church and state should be absolute and if it came to a choice between that doctrine and the dictates of a Catholic prelate, Kennedy assured the ministers, he would act on what was best of the nation, without regard for his church.

“I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials,” Kennedy said.

In those days, Baptists were among the strongest defenders of the doctrine of separation of church and state. They were suspicious that Kennedy would push for state aid to parochial schools and install a hotline to the Vatican. As Kennedy noted, it was colonial Virginia’s harassment of Baptist preachers that led to Jefferson’s statute of religious freedom and the Baptists supported the constitutional prohibition against any religious test for public office in the new United States.

Watch the video of the speech at Salon.com. Make sure you watch the question-and-answer session, where ministers tried to catch Kennedy using quotations from old Catholic texts. Kennedy stood fast with his secular reading of the Constitution. At the end the ministers gave Kennedy a prolonged standing ovation.

In the intervening years, many Baptists and other fundamentalists have relaxed their attitudes toward separation of church and state as they have flexed their political muscle. Now fundamentalist Christian schools — many of which were founded as refuges for white students during school desegregation in the 1960s and ’70s — are seeking government funds.

Romney, for his part, rejected the idea of a religious test for the White House — the only sensible course for a Mormon to take outside Utah — but he also sought to assure Christians that he believes that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and Savior. He recognizes the different religious heritages in the United States and asserted that “freedom requires religion,” while criticizing “the new religion of secularism” that seeks to remove religion from public life.

It should be remembered that Jesus had a low opinion of those who express piety for public consumption. He told his disciples, “When you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who is in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:5-6)

It’s not the first time Romney has sacrificed a principle to political expediency, but it probably won’t do him much good. After all, he has transformed himself from a moderate former Massachusetts governor who supported abortion rights, gay rights and even universal health care into a conservative pro-lifer who ridiculed Hillary Clinton’s health reform proposal that seemed to copy his Massachusetts plan.

Fundamentalist Christians who reject the idea that the Founders intended to separate church and state won’t hesitate when they compare Romney and Mike Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor and former Baptist pastor who advertises himself as a Christian leader. When it comes to determining who’s the better Christian leader, Romney must hope that there are enough secular Republicans left in the party to advance him.

One More Disgrace

It is just one more disgrace that President George W. Bush and Vice President Cheney continued to beat the drums for war with Iran until the revelation that US intelligence agencies knew at least several months ago that Iran had stopped work on a nuclear weapons program in 2003.

After the NIE summary was disclosed on Dec. 3, the following day Bush said that he learned about the NIE conclusions only the week before, even though he’d been told by Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell in August that there was “new information” about Iran’s capabilities. Bush claimed McConnell “didn’t tell me what that information was.” (The day before, National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley told reporters that the president was told in August to “stand down” on rhetoric towards Iran. Bush ignored that advice as he continued to warn of threat from Iran. In October, Bush warned of the threat of World War III triggered by Iran’s nuclear technology.)

Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., Senate Foreign Relations chairman, called Bush’s explanation unbelievable. “I refuse to believe that,” Biden said of the White House explanation that Bush was not told of the new information. “If that’s true, he has the most incompetent staff in modern American history, and he’s one of the most incompetent presidents in modern American history.”

It was only after the CIA launched a secret program in 2005 to persuade key Iranian officials to defect, prompting a “handful” of significant departures, that the CIA learned that the Iranian weapons program had been shut down two years earlier, Greg Miller reported in the Los Angeles Times (Dec. 9).

The emphasis on Iran was a reversal for the Bush administration, Miller wrote. The Clinton administration had built up a large Iran Task Force, with nearly 100 officers and analysts at CIA headquarters, but shortly after Bush took office the task force shrank to fewer than a dozen officers as the focus shifted to Iraq.

When attention turned back to Iran, US intelligence analysts found little evidence that Iran was trying to build a nuclear bomb, Seymour Hersh reported a year ago in The New Yorker (Nov. 27, 2006). “The CIA found no conclusive evidence, as yet, of a secret Iranian nuclear-weapons program running parallel to the civilian operations that Iran has declared to the International Atomic Energy Agency,” Hersh wrote. The CIA’s analysis was based on readings from satellites, measurements of the radioactivity of water samples and smoke plumes from factories and power plants and other high-tech radioactivity-detection devices that found no significant amounts of radioactivity.

Still, the National Intelligence Estimate that Iran was no longer an immediate threat might never have come to light if senior CIA analysts had not pushed for the key judgments on Iran to be released to the public. Intelligence bureaucrats threatened to speak to the media and risk going to jail if the document’s gist were not reported to the public, Pat Lang, a retired colonel from the Defense Intelligence Agency, reported.

In the backlash after the NIE was disclosed, neocons attacked the analysis and called for congressional hearings to investigate the conclusions on Iran as well as the intelligence that went into it. To which we add, Yes, let there be hearings — public hearings. And impeachment hearings while they’re at it. — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, January 1-15, 2008

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