It has become an oft repeated trope of Catholics who are on the left or the self-consciously-unclassifiable portions of the American political spectrum that the pro-life movement has suffered a catastrophic loss of credibility because of its association with the Republican Party, and thence with the Iraq War and the use of torture on Al Qaeda detainees. Until the pro-life movement distances itself from the Republican Party and all of the pro-life leadership who have defended the Iraq War and/or the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” on detainees, the argument goes, the pro-life movement will have no moral authority and will be the laughing stock of enlightened Catholics everywhere.
Regardless of what one thinks about the Iraq War and torture (myself, I continue to support the former but oppose the latter) I’m not sure that this claim works very well. Further, I think that those who make it often fail to recognize the extent to which it cuts both ways.
Credibility by Association
The nature of our two party political system is that most single issues live within the portfolio of one party or the other, and there is a complex web of associations between advocacy organizations and high profile advocates of all the causes within a party’s tent. Thus, for instance, many Catholics, rightly or wrongly, identify the following issues which are primarily supported by “liberal” organizations as being Catholic positions:
- Opposition to the death penalty
- Relaxing immigration restrictions
- Increasing social safety net/welfare programs
- Opposition to nearly all use of military power (primary exception being UN peacekeeping missions)
- Universal health care
- Opposition to torture and holding GWOT detainees without trail
However, there is very, very strong overlap between these issues and others which an inimical to Catholic teaching:
- The right to abortion
- Embryonic stem cell research, genetic engineering, and cloning
- Gay marriage
- Explicit and morally ambiguous sex education
- Freedom of speech applied to hard core porn
Similarly, Catholics would identify the following Republican issues as being distinctly Catholic:
- Right to life of the unborn
- Opposition to euthanasia
- Opposition to ESCR and cloning (though this is not nearly as strong as one could wish)
- School vouchers and parental freedom in regards to education
- Chastity-based sex education in public schools
- Defense of the traditional definition of marriage
- Cultural opposition to porn, promiscuity, etc.
Yet there is much overlap between those in organizations supporting the above aims and others which some Catholics object to:
- Limited immigration and tough enforcement of immigration laws
- Support for most US wars and military interventions in history
- Refusal to condemn the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” on Al Qaeda detainees
- Opposition to higher social spending
- Support for capital punishment
All of these political alignments have existed for quite some time, and people are quite used to them. Thus, I think it is really a stretch for people to suddenly come out now with worries that pro-lifers will lose credibility because of their association with the Iraq War and Guantanamo. Those who care enough about opposing abortion have mostly learned to deal with the movement as it exists, whether they like the allies that usually come along with that or not.
Similarly, those who have decided to devote themselves to organizations opposing the death penalty or supporting more open immigration policies have long ago accustomed themselves to primarily working with people who are pro-choice, pro-gay marriage and pro-euthanasia. Given that these alignments have remained fairly static, it makes no more sense to say that those opposing abortion have lost credibility because of Iraq and Guantanamo than it does to say that those opposing the Iraq war and the use of torture lack credibility because of their association with abortion and gay marriage proponents.
While we’re on the subject of credibility, I think it’s worth taking a moment at why it took so long for the accusations of torture and the arguments against it to gain traction among many conservatives, including Catholics. One of the things it’s important to recall here is that from the very beginning of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the anti-war movement was nearly completely synonymous with the far left of the Democratic Party. I was living in LA in 2001 to 2003, and so driving by the Wilshire Blvd. federal building (right off the 405, and within easy driving distance of far left enclaves like Santa Monica) was a quick and easy way to get the pulse of the anti-war movement.
Just a week or two after 9/11, before troops had even moved into Afghanistan, the placards were reading, “Bushitler plans another holocaust” and the chants were, “One, two, three, four, we don’t want a racist war.” The claim in local alternative newspaper editorials was that there was no evidence that Afghanistan had anything to do with 9/11 and that Bush only wanted to attack it because of a racist desire to kill Arabs.
Claims that the administration was illegally arresting people without charges all over the country and torturing them for information were also pretty common — sometimes oddly juxtaposed with equally indignant denunciations of the administration for allowing a plane full of members of the Saudi royal family (probably fearing harassment from an angry populace) leave the country.
As things progressed, every possible accusation (many of which have never proved out in the years since) was invented and aired against the Bush administration. So by the time that accusations regarding the interrogations at Guantanamo came out, it’s hardly surprising that people were treating the anti-war movement like a boy that cried wolf.
Elizabeth Anscombe once ventured the opinion that absolutist pacifists help to create the climate for worse atrocities during war by insisting that all war is evil. (And if all war is evil, how can one worry oneself with things like the “laws of war”?) Those who demand to know why it took so long before anyone took their concerns about torture seriously may want to examine their own movement a bit and ask whether branding every single thing the US did after 9/11 as a crime against humanity perhaps dulled people to the accusation by the time that real accusations of abuse surfaced. (Further, it would be well not to downplay that authorities within the military and CIA were in the main responsible for ending the use of abusive interrogation techniques before the political hoopla on the topic even got started. Most of the outrage has been after the fact.)