George Hunsinger gives the lie to the Right’s caricature of progressives as anti-religious zealots. As a minister, the McCord professor of theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, and coordinator of Church Folks for a Better America (CBFA), Hunsinger is working hard to reframe the “moral values” debate by raising tough questions about how torture, pre-emption, unjust war, and poverty can be tolerated by people of moral and religious conviction.
Hunsinger has tapped into a rich tradition of religious progressive activism–from Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Father Robert Drinan to Rev. William Sloane Coffin. He shared his thoughts on Iraq, torture, and the challenges facing progressive religious leaders in a recent email interview.
Torture is not a divisive issue for religious people. No religious person, and no person of conscience, can possibly justify it morally. An example of this is an emerging new network of religious progressives which recently published an “Open Letter to Alberto Gonzales.”
My fledgling organization, Church Folks for a Better America, took the lead. In a short time we garnered over 225 signatures from a wide variety of religious leaders: Not only Catholics, Protestants and Jews, but also Muslims and Sikhs. We also made inroads among leading evangelicals.
The Open Letter got some good coverage. We were often mentioned alongside the ex-military lawyers who came out against Gonzales in press accounts. In the final Gonzales debate, our letter was quoted on the Senate floor.
Church Folks for a Better America came into existence almost by accident. On September 12, 2001, I found myself spending more time on the Internet than I care to remember trying to get a handle on what was really happening. I could see the ominous implications for war as well as for a crackdown on liberty at home. I wrote an Urgent Appeal opposing the invasion of Iraq on just-war grounds, signed by prominent academic theologians like Sarah Coakley, Stanley Hauerwas and Nicholas Wolterstorff as well as activists like JimWallis and William Sloane Coffin, Jr., and published in Sojourners. I started flooding the inboxes of my friends each day with what I found by scouring the net.
Until the Abu Ghraib torture scandal I was pretty much just a guy alone in his office with a computer. By that time I had an enormous backlog of files. I wrote a new statement that I hoped we could run in the New York Times. I wanted to get it out there before the “transfer” of power in Iraq on June 30, 2004. When I was unable to raise the handsome sum the Times requires, a colleague suggested setting up a website a la Howard Dean. One thing led to another, and by August CFBA came online. And, with a few large donations and many smaller ones, An Appeal to Recover America’s Moral Character“–the Dove Ad, as we called it–finally ran in the Times as a quarter-page ad on the Sunday Op-Ed page just prior to the presidential election. We also had enough funds to publish the letter in papers in Pennsylvania and Ohio.
I try to keep the website up-to-date, though as a professor I also have a day job. The site keeps abreast of Iraq news, in-depth analysis, good sermons, antiwar poetry and little-known websites.
It used to be said that the right had the wallet but the left had the pen. But then the Right discovered that if you had the wallet you could buy the pen. The rightwing take-over of religious discourse in America is part of a larger trend that has developed over the last 25 to 30 years. The right has learned to be extremely effective in shaping the political agenda and exploiting religious sensibilities.
Meanwhile, the liberal left has not always been hospitable to religious people. The renewal of a progressive movement in our country may well hinge on whether that can change. The Solidarity movement in Poland, where dissident intellectuals joined hands with the Catholic Church, is suggestive of what we need here. Jeffrey Stout’s new book Democracy and Tradition is also seminal for the future of religion and politics in America.
Church Folks for a Better America is dedicated to the idea that the word “Christian” does not necessarily go with the word “Right.” Our motto, taken from Martin Luther King, is addressed first to the churches: “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” We are a rallying point for many Christians who are appalled when the churches remain silent. If the churches cannot speak out against something like torture, what good is it to have tongues?
The confirmation of Alberto Gonzales was, in effect, a national referendum on torture. No one in high places has been held accountable, the Republican-dominated Senate has acquiesced, and not enough people seem to care. Enormities like torture are increasingly papered over with democratic rhetoric and pious falsehoods. Anti-democratic forces in America tighten their grip, while we suffer from a will to ignorance. The elements of atrocity, manipulation and indifference add up to a spiritual crisis.
Let me add, however, that to some extent I was heartened by the quality of opposition to Gonzales. Senators Kennedy, Byrd, Durbin, and Reed, for example, all made distinguished speeches. They remind me of the hopes we once had, and might still have, for our beloved country.
Karl Barth (1886-1968), regarded by many as the 20th century’s greatest theologian [and whom Hunsinger has studied], is, in one sense, something like Noam Chomsky. He does not fit neatly into familiar categories. Theologically traditional, he stood on the political left. Generous orthodoxy, as he represented it, inspires my intellectual and religious life.
Barth was the theological leader of the confessing church, the grouping of Protestant churches that resisted Hitler. He was a life-long democratic socialist. On the war question, he went back and forth between just-war pacifism and chastened non-pacifism. These are the parameters of my political views.
As a divinity student at Harvard years ago, I pounded the pavement for Father [Robert] Drinan during his campaign for the House of Representatives. It was a particular pleasure for me when, just recently, he volunteered his signature for The Dove Ad. In 1978-79, with the Riverside Church Disarmament Program, I served as an assistant to [Rev.] William Sloane Coffin, Jr. The loose-leaf anthology and course syllabus I developed on nuclear disarmament, which we called the Red Notebook, was widely distributed at the time. You might say that Church Folks for a Better America online is a successor to the Red Notebook.
Church Folks for a Better America owes a debt to great figures who have gone before us like Karl Barth, Martin Luther King, and Bill Coffin. You could look at it as my modest attempt to pay them tribute.
As for what’s next, a larger anti-torture campaign is now in the works with the following goals: 1) Congressional action to stop exempting intelligence services from the torture ban imposed on military services; 2) Congressional action to outlaw the horrifying practice of extraordinary rendition/torture by proxy; 3) A clear statement from Bush that US policy does not condone torture in any form or under any circumstances; 4) The appointment of a special prosecutor to get to the bottom of the issue.
Our work will also continue against the Iraq war. Destroying entire cities, as happened with Fallujah, is a form of terrorism, just as torture is a form of terrorism. Fighting terrorism by terrorism is at once immoral and futile. It has been clear since Abu Ghraib that the war cannot be won. The 14 new military bases planned for Iraq must be exposed and opposed along with the shameless profiteering still taking place. We join with all who call for an early and orderly exit, and for reparations for Iraq’s long-suffering people.
As our list of supporters grows, we will combine Internet activism with direct mail and political action. Last fall the Dove Ad campaign saw seminary students raising money on 12 campuses across the country. Model sermons and prayers appear on our website along with alternative news and analysis. Congregations need a deeper understanding of the just-war tradition. Ordinary believers need to see the progressive implications of ordinary faith. They need powerful alternatives to the Religious Right.
We will work in concentric circles, beginning with the community of faith. Our efforts will be modest. Remember that we have only been around for six months. Though we will of course join in coalitions with anyone who shares our concerns, our particular calling is reaching out to people of faith, including elected officials. Republican Senators who profess to be believers, for example, have no business voting for torture. Through creative new faith-based initiatives, perhaps they too can be reached.