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“When Advantages Matter More Than Humane Ideals”: Does Mitt Romney’s Religion Condone Torture?

Nobody asked Governor Mitt Romney or President Barack Obama about torture during Monday night’s “foreign policy debate”—but someone should have.

Because recently disclosed Romney campaign documents are raising new questions about the candidate’s position, and the recent appointment of a Spokane, Washington LDS bishop who in his professional life as a psychologist pioneered so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” after 9/11 has raised new questions about whether Mormonism condones torture.

Washington newspapers are reporting that Bruce Jessen was called and “sustained” (or approved) to serve as bishop by his Spokane-area congregation in mid-October.

In late 2001, Jessen and James Mitchell (both clinical psychologists with no previous interrogation or intelligence training; both members of the LDS Church) were contracted by the CIA to develop “enhanced interrogation techniques” and to train interrogators during what one source describes as “brutal interrogations that effectively unfolded as live demonstrations.” Together, Jessen and Mitchell came to be known as the “Mormon mafia.”

Other LDS people involved in the development of Bush-administration torture tactics include Jay Bybee, who supervised and signed John Yoo’s 2002 “Torture Memo” effectively authorizing the United States’ use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” in Iraq; and Timothy Flanigan, deputy White House counsel who participated with Alberto Gonzalez in Bush’s “War Council” and testified before a Senate panel that waterboarding and other torture techniques should not necessarily be “off-limits” and that “inhumane can’t be coherently defined.”

When dozens of religious leaders and organizations issued a 2005 statement calling on the Bush administration to rule out torture as anti-biblical, the LDS Church through a spokesman issued a statement “condemning inhumane treatment of any person under any circumstance.”

Romney, however, appears to be lining up with Jessen, Mitchell, Bybee, and Flanigan.

Last month, the New York Times disclosed a September 2011 memo drafted by Romney’s advisors advocating the resumption of so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” initiated under President George W. Bush but banned by President Barack Obama on his second day in office.

In a December 17, 2011 Town Hall meeting, Romney said, “I will not authorize torture.” But at the press conference after the Town Hall meeting, when a reporter asked him if he considered waterboarding to be torture, Romney responded “I don’t.”

Romney’s stance led one UN official to warn last week that his election would amount to “a democratic mandate for torture.”

While some LDS media observers have denied a pattern of Mormon involvement in torture, others in the Mormon community have called for closer consideration of this serious moral and ethical matter.

And it does matter. It matters because unlike in most contemporary American religious communities, Mormons are routinely expected to assess their own moral “worthiness” to participate in religious rites and to serve in their local congregations—including in positions of pastoral responsibility such as bishop (which both Governor Romney and Mr. Jessen have served). And moral worthiness in Mormon communities is now widely framed in terms of highly individualistic choices like payment of tithes, sexual chastity, and observance of restrictions on consumption of alcohol, tobacco, and coffee.

It matters because it points to grave underdevelopment in the public morality and political theology of contemporary Mormonism. As Mormon Studies expert Professor Patrick Mason has told RD, Mormonism has “no systematic theology” on issues like human rights or poverty or war. Its view of morality is “highly individualized.”

And the torture issue matters to the question of how Romney will govern. We’ve consistently seen that the candidate will be essentially values-neutral in his approach to foreign and economic policy and centered on defending and promoting the interests of large institutions that reward loyalty. The chain of command and tactical advantages matter more than time-honored humane ideals. That’s a disposition Romney has in common with Jessen, Mitchell, Bybee, and other Mormons who have been in a position not only to support torture but to develop and implement it.

Once again, the issue is not that Mitt Romney is unduly influenced by his faith. It’s that his faith has little influence when it comes to some extremely serious moral questions.


By: Joanna Brooks, Religion Dispatches, October 23, 2012


October 24, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Chosen One”: Mitt Romney’s Peculiarly Mormon Elitism

At first blush, it’s difficult to equate Mitt Romney’s faith with his recent comments that he’s powerless to convince America’s victim class–that 47% of the country he says are dependent on government entitlements–to vote for him. Isn’t Mormomism predicated upon the missionary effort to convert complete strangers (not to mention redistribution of wealth, through tithing)? Indeed, when the 47% video surfaced, many simply assumed the candidate was just pandering to the crowd of $50k/plate donors. The Real Romney was back somewhere in 2006.

But in his excellent piece on Romney’s work as Mormon state leader in Massachusetts, New York’s Benjamin Wallace-Wells makes a convincing case that Romney’s faith and his elitism are in fact closely linked. Wallace-Wells reports that Romney’s missionary work in Lynn, Massachusetts, during which he oversaw a mostly failed attempt to convert a Cambodian community, never discouraged him. While others in his Church grew frustrated at their fruitless efforts, Romney seemed satisfied with their minimal progress, telling a colleague that “if you only get a handful of members, that’s still a good result.”

Romney’s missionary efforts were guided by the belief that if one was able to correctly follow Church guidelines, he would achieve salvation. If not, oh well. As Wallace-Wells put it: “What he offered was salvation via a rule book, a recipe for getting ahead in America that had less to offer the doubters, the uncommitted, the foreign.” Romney, perhaps swayed by the influence of party elites and his running mate Paul Ryan, has now lumped 47% of America into that same category.

In this way, Romney conceived of himself as a member of a series of overlapping elite clubs–Mormons, businessmen, suburban family men–who have played by the rules, and justly reaped the benefits. Quoting the Mormon scholar Claudia Bushman, Wallace-Wells writes that Romney seems to abide by the traditional Mormon perspective that he is something of a chosen one, inhabiting “an island of morality in a sea of moral decay.”

But the idea of elite membership–of exalted status–goes beyond this. Mormon faith holds that men don’t only wish to please God, they can eventually join him, be him. As Harold Bloom–that sometimes scholar of Mormonism–wrote last fall in the New York Times, “Mormons earn godhead though their own efforts…the Mormon patriarch, secure in his marriage and large family, is promised by his faith a final ascension to godhead, with a planet all his own separate from the earth and nation where he now dwells.”

This is not to say Romney thinks Mormonism represents the only path toward material success. Rather, Romney’s own Mormonism–and his success by it–simply reinforces the merits of the “No Apology” elitism he’s adopted on the campaign trail.


By: Simin van Zuylen-Wood, Washington Monthly Political Animal, September 30, 2012

October 1, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Sad And Pathetic”: The Lost Soul Of Mitt Romney

The nation has suffered a death in the family.

This morning we learn that our Ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, was among four Americans killed yesterday in a violent attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. It was an attack carried out by a mob deeply upset by a film made by an American-Israeli, California-based real estate developer that ridicules Mohammed, the central figure in Islamic religious belief.

While the Romney campaign chose to turn yesterday’s events in Cairo and Benghazi into a political opportunity by criticizing the Obama Administration for a statement issued by our embassy in Cairo earlier in the day (more on that in a moment), a check of Twitter and other communications sources reveals that, as of the time of publication of this piece, Governor Romney has not yet seen fit to so much as express his condolences to the families of Ambassador Stevens and the other Americans who lost their lives in service to their country. Now, if I’ve somehow missed Romney’ issuance of condolences, I’m sure that there are many readers who will gladly point this out. I, in turn, will be more than willing to correct the record if this is the case—however a close search of all sources reveals that no such statement has been forthcoming from the Romney camp.

The Romney condemnation—issued prior to official confirmation of Ambassador Steven’s death—stated, “I’m outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi. It’s disgraceful that the Obama Administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.”

These words were uttered at the time when the families of our fellow countrymen were being notified of the terrible fate that had befallen their loved ones.

Is this really how leadership works?

A leader waits until all the facts are available and the impact of one’s words can be more fully assessed. In speaking out before he was fully aware of the situation on the ground, Governor Romney chose the path of the impulsive politician rather that the road taken by a measured leader—and all in the quest of political gain.

And then there is the Twitter posted by GOP Chairman, Reince Priebus, which simply says, “Obama sympathizes with attackers in Egypt. Sad and pathetic.”

Apparently, there is nothing sufficiently sad and pathetic about the violent loss of American lives to merit so much as a follow-up Tweet from Chairman Priebus mourning these terrible deaths.

What was the transgression that led the GOP candidate and party chairman to attack the President for ‘sympathizing’ with the protestors or— as many right-wing voices are today saying—“apologizing” (a favorite trigger word of the right these days) to the protestors?

It was a statement issued earlier yesterday by staffers at the American embassy in Cairo—a statement containing words that sought to defuse a situation quickly getting out of hand as Muslims protested the offending film outside the embassy gates. That statement, issued without the prior approval of either the State Department or the White House, was one that we can reasonably assume was the result of frightened embassy employees—employees under siege and attempting to keep a bad situation from getting dangerously out of control.

The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions. Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are honoring our patriots and those who serve our nation as the fitting response to the enemies of democracy. Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.

Maybe I’m experiencing another one of those hemorrhages in that pesky left-side of my brain, but it’s a real struggle to find anything approaching an apology in those words.

What I do see is a reminder to the Muslim protestors that the United States of America, while defending the right of free speech even when that speech is deeply offensive to some, is not a nation that stands for anyone disrespecting the religious beliefs of another. Indeed, as the communiqué noted, this religious tolerance is a cornerstone of American democracy.

At least it used to be.

Governor Romney should understand this better than most as the founder of Romney’s own LDS religion, Joseph Smith, was murdered by a violent mob whose own religious beliefs had been offended by Smith. Ironically, that mob violently stormed the jail in which Smith was being detained and killed the man in cold blood.

I’m sure the irony of our Ambassador’s death at the hands of such a mob is completely lost on Governor Romney who has now cashed in the decency I have always ascribed to the man in exchange for his willingness to do anything—and say anything—if it helps him capture the prize he so intensely seeks. No doubt, the Romney campaign tells itself that trading their souls is the price they must pay for the greater good. No doubt, they convince themselves of some wisdom they find in speaking first and thinking later if that is what must be done to save the American people from themselves.

Yet, I think all Americans know how that storyline ends.

In point of actual fact—not that the facts have ever stood in the way of Romney campaign rhetoric—President Obama has condemned the actions of the mob in the harshest possible terms— as has Secretary Clinton.

Indeed, the only apologizing I can find is the apology issued today by Libya’s interim president, Mohammed el-Megarif, who said on behalf of his country, “We extend our apology to America, the American people and the whole world.”

I suppose this will now put the leader of the Libyan government at risk with the extremists in his own country as, apparently, apologies are offensive to extremists everywhere.

While there is certainly nothing that has been said or done that would suggest that any American official has apologized for the heinous behavior of the mob—at least, not here in the real world—there is an apology that I would like to offer.

On behalf of a few of my fellow Americans who have behaved in an insensitive and inappropriate manner, I would like to apologize to the families and friends of my countrymen who died so tragically in Benghazi. I’m sure that if a presidential campaign was not clouding their judgment, they would have shown a bit more consideration, compassion and class.

At least I’d like to believe that this would be the case.


By: Rick Ungar, Contributor, Forbes, September 12, 2012

September 15, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Pure And Delightsome”: Choose Right Gov. Romney, Not Racism

Dear Gov. (Bishop) Romney:

I’m assuming you’ll understand why, as someone who teaches the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in a classroom, your comment yesterday at a rally in Michigan irked me tremendously. In case you’re trying to forget what you said, let me repeat it for you. “No one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate. They know that this [Michigan] is the place that we were born and raised.”

I have tried my best to give you the benefit of the doubt. It seems however, that you are the same bully who cut your classmate’s hair back in high school. The reality is, you are the product of white privilege; some from your money, but also from the racist history of the LDS beginning with Brigham Young. You might think that it’s unfair to bring up the LDS’ troubled past, but I think it is, in part, a big issue for you in this campaign. Let me explain.

Most reporters focus on the 1978 revelation that black men could be part of the Mormon priesthood as the end of Mormon theology regarding race, though a recent op-ed in the New York Times by John G. Turner suggests that “race is still a problem for the Mormon Church because they have never repudiated nor apologized for it.” I agree with Turner. It is a problem for the LDS.

It is a greater problem for you, however, because you are running against the first African-American President of the United States. You are also from a persecuted minority, though you have chosen to take the trappings of whiteness, prosperity and privilege and make them your own. That is within your right. It is not a good look for you however, nor is it for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that you represent, whether you want to or not.

When you talk about “welfare” or the birth certificate “joke,” I think they are much more than a “dog whistle” to your base. I wonder if it also comes from Mormon theology which taught that black people are black because they are cursed as “fence sitters in heaven” and had the mark of Cain. If that’s not enough, the Book of Mormon, specifically 2 Nephi 30:6, said the Laminites would become “Whitesome and Delightsome” if they accepted the book of Mormon. Perhaps you have not noticed the text was changed to “Pure and Delightsome” in 1981. So, for you to continue to pick up race-bating is not only a tea party tell, it is a reflection, whether you like it or not, on the LDS past—no matter how many “I am a Mormon” commercials feature people of color.

What’s more, your own family history points to a painful past. Your grandfather escaped to Mexico to be able to practice his belief in polygamy (you and President Obama both have polygamy in your family history). Mormons have been persecuted for a long time, though your money and your father’s position protected you from associating with that persecuted past. It is part of you, no matter how much you cling to your privilege. Would it be too difficult for you to exercise some discretion, noting your own past, and realize that many African Americans are sick and damn tired of white people questioning the President of the United States about his birth certificate?

I hope you realize that because President Obama won in 2008, he had made it easier for you to run for President in 2012. Both the Republican Party and the religious right shunned you in 2008. Many Christian power brokers are holding their noses to vote for you because they hate President Obama more. Many wonder if you even are a Christian. So please, before you use racism and dog whistles against the president, consider your church’s past of persecution, and bigotry. Choose the right, if you can.


By: Anthea Butler, Religion Dispatches, August 25, 2012

August 26, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

“I Can’t, I’m Mormon!”: A Special Cause, Mitt Romney’s Pious Baloney On Tax Returns

After months stonewalling on releasing more tax returns, Mitt Romney invoked a brand-new explanation for demurring in an interview with Parade magazine set to hit newsstands this weekend: religion. “Our church doesn’t publish how much people have given [to the LDS Church]. This is done entirely privately. One of the downsides of releasing one’s financial information is that this is now all public, but we had never intended our contributions to be known. It’s a very personal thing between ourselves and our commitment to our God and to our church,” Romney told the magazine when asked about his returns, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.

While it’s certainly understandable that Romney would prefer to keep his church giving private, this isn’t really a convincing argument for hiding his returns. For one, he’s not actually hiding anything as the cat’s already out of the bag. We already know how much Romney gave to the Mormon church in 2010 and 2011, the years for which he has released tax returns. Mormons are encouraged to tithe 10 percent of their income and, indeed, Romney gave about that — $4.1 million of the $40 million he earned in those two years. His Tyler Charitable Foundation gave another $4.8 mil to the faith. So if we already know how much he gave in 2010 and 2011, why should any other year be kept secret?

Secondly, the whole reason presidential candidates release tax returns is because former Republican presidential candidate George Romney started the tradition in the late 1960s by releasing 12 years of returns. George Romney was also a Mormon and a leader in the church, but apparently had no problem with how much he had given to the church (he was also Mitt Romney’s father). Over the 12-year period covered by the returns, George and his wife, Lenore Romney, gave 19 percent of their income to the LDS church.

Moreover, most churches (or synagogues or mosques or temples) expect their congregants to donate, and since every presidential nominee since forever has been religious, at least publicly, Romney is asking to be excused from a standard that everyone else has been held to. There’s nothing in his answer that suggests Mormons should have special cause to be exempted, and it’s reasonable to assume that a protestant like Barack Obama or a Methodist like George W. Bush would also prefer to keep their religious giving private, if given their druthers. But they both released their tax returns. (For what it’s worth, Obama was pretty stingy in his religious donations, giving just 1.4 percent of his income.)

If Romney wants to keep the rest of his tax returns private — as he certainly does, and has promised to do — he’ll need to come up with a better reason than this pious baloney, to quote Newt Gingrich.


BY: Alex Seitz-Wald, Salon, August 24, 2012

August 25, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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