Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Torturing Our History

Revelations that detainees at Guantanamo were waterboarded hundreds of times have brought torture screaming back into the headlines.

How far our country has strayed from its founding ideals! George Washington, after capturing a thousand Hessians at Trenton, commanded his subordinates to “Treat them with humanity, and let them have no reason to Complain of our Copying the brutal example of the British Army,” who were notorious for maltreating POWs aboard their prison ships.

As Chair of the Board of War and Ordnance, John Adams complained of hearing “continual accounts of the barbarities, the cruel murder in cold blood, even by the most tormenting ways of starving and freezing, committed by our enemies” and advised a policy of “Yankee virtue” toward captives in American hands. During the War of 1812, President James Madison called torture an “outrage against the laws of honorable war and against the feelings sacred to humanity.”

Sentiments like these were codified in Lincoln’s administration under the “General Orders No. 100” which affirmed that “Military necessity does not admit of cruelty—that is, the infliction of suffering for the sake of suffering or for revenge, nor of maiming or wounding except in fight, nor of torture to extort confessions.” Lincoln’s humane policy became a model for other European nations and eventually for the Geneva Conventions.

Can America regain its moral bearing? Even President Obama, who has favored a policy of “let bygones by bygones,” is now hinting there may need to be criminal investigations of interrogations that took place in the Bush years. But first, Obama may need to clean up his own act. Both Aljazeera and Democracy Now report that torture may be continuing at Guantanamo. According to Democracy Now, “Another Guantanamo Bay prisoner has come forward to back accounts of worsening torture since President Obama took office.”

Gitmo inmate Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif, in a letter to his attorney, asks, “America, what has happened to you?” It’s a question a question every citizen should be asking.

(For a full article on America’s Founding Fathers and the policy of “harsh interrogation,” see an article I wrote for Tikkun last fall titled “Torturing Our History.” You can access the magazine online at

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Passing the Plate

Ben Franklin said nothing is certain but death and taxes. Where I come from, there’s one more thing that can be counted on. Preachers are always asking for money.

If you’ve ever attended a church service, no matter the denomination, you know it’s customary to pass the plate for an offering. Some find this offensive, wondering why organized religion always has its hand out. But I find it bracing, particularly as April 15 approaches, the date when taxes come due.

I’m reminded that churches and synagogues in America are supported voluntarily, by the contributions of their members, not by the IRS. That’s the way the founders—especially James Madison—thought it should be done.

Madison was the author of a famous document, the Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments. He wrote it in response to his fellow Virginian Patrick Henry, who in 1784 had introduced an act into the House of Burgesses levying a tax to pay for “teachers of the Christian religion.” Patrick’s bill would have made the Episcopal Church the state’s officially sanctioned religious institution. In a conciliatory gesture, there were some provisions for non-Anglicans to opt out and direct their taxes toward their own places of worship. George Washington straddled, indicating that he wasn’t opposed in principle toward “making people pay toward the support of that which they profess,” yet deeming Henry’s proposal “impolitic.”

But Madison was adamantly opposed. In his Memorial and Remonstrance, he took the position that government support eroded genuine faith. Think what happened to Christianity, after it became the official religion of the Roman Empire. What started out as a religion of love and non-violence quickly became a religion of crusading and conquest. Christianity became, in Madison’s words, a tool of “superstition, bigotry, and persecution.”

Madison’s arguments ultimately proved persuasive, especially for religious minorities like Baptists and Quakers, who had been harassed under the Church of England establishment that prevailed when Virginia was still a British colony. Our current separation of church and state is largely Mr. Madison’s legacy.

That legacy should be celebrated. Perhaps it won’t make April 15th a day of rejoicing, but it should sweeten the experience the next time you’re sitting in a house of worship and the offering is announced. Passing the plate is a quintessentially American ritual—one of the rare practices that congregations of almost every description in this spiritually diverse land have in common.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

America's Religious Neutrality

The United States has fought wars against many enemies. But it has never fought a religious war or declared itself the adversary to any creed.

So Barack Obama returned from Turkey yesterday, declaring that the U.S. “is not and never will be at war with Islam.” He was careful to separate the practice of Islam from terrorism, which he called “a fringe ideology that people of all faiths reject.”

Obama’s words are reminiscent of an earlier president’s, when our nation was engaged in another “war on terror.” In the eighteenth century, the newly founded country was in conflict with the Barbary pirates---maritime kidnappers and privateers operating out of Tunis, Algeria and Morocco who seized ships, took hostages, and held them for ransom or sold them into slavery.

They were an earlier equivalent of Al Qaeda. Two American ships were captured in 1785 and their crewmen held for $60,000. Rumors that Benjamin Franklin, who was en route to France about that time, had also been captured, were especially alarming. Something had to be done.

To neutralize the threat, the United States negotiated the Treaty of Tripoli, more formally called the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the United States of America and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli of Barbary. The pact was unanimously approved by the U.S. Senate and signed by John Adams in 1797.

And just as Obama has been keen to make it clear that we have no quarrel with Islam (reminding Turkish listeners that his own father was Muslim and that he lived in Muslim-majority Indonesia as a child), the Treat of Tripoli was careful to stipulate that—officially speaking--Americans observed strict neutrality in matters of religion.

Article Eleven of the Treaty of Tripoli states that, “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”

The text of the ratified treaty was printed in New York papers and the Philadelphia Gazette, without any evidence of public opposition or dissent.

Though it has been said many times over our history---from an almost forgotten Treaty whose origins lie in George Washington’s administration to the words of our 47th President, Barack Obama—it bears repeating: our is not a Christian nation. And to a spiritually pluralistic world, we say, let us be friends, not foes.