April 5, 2009

Faith-Based Initiatives and War Crimes: Obama is Failing Miserably

War CriminalImage by danny.hammontree via Flickr

This was a difficult post to write. I somewhat reluctantly supported Obama in the final stretch because it was clear to me that McCain simply was not a viable choice. In the end, I voted for Obama because I saw it as my best option for keeping McCain out of office. I still believe this was the right decision, but I join many other atheists and political progressives in having growing doubts about Obama. I desperately want him to succeed but am greatly troubled by what I have seen so far. In this post, I'd like to address my two main concerns I have with Obama. I suppose the good news is that it is not too late for him to do the right thing. Unfortunately, he has shown no indication of wanting to do so yet.

Elevated Role of Religion and Religious Discrimination

The initial concern many atheists had about Obama was based on his plans to expand Bush's faith-based initiatives. Although it turned out that some of the early warnings were exaggerated, two new concerns have since emerged.

First, Obama's version of the faith-based initiative gives taxpayer money to religious groups which engage in discriminatory hiring practices (e.g., refusing to hire qualified applicants because of their religious beliefs or lack thereof). I am not saying that religious groups should not be allowed to restrict their membership to persons of similar religious beliefs, but I am saying that those groups which do so should not be eligible to receive tax dollars. Fortunately, I am not alone. Most Americans oppose this sort of church-state violation, and many prominent newspapers have bashed Obama for this practice, including the Washington Post, New York Times, and Los Angeles Times. Funding such organizations violates one of Obama's campaign promises, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State suggests that we let Obama know that we are unhappy with this.

The second concern is not limited to faith-based initiatives but concerns the broader elevation of religion in Obama's administration, evidenced by the administration's practice of beginning nearly every presidential event with a prayer. According to U.S. News & World Report,
Though invocations have long been commonplace at presidential inaugurations and certain events like graduations or religious services at which presidents are guests, the practice of commissioning and vetting prayers for presidential rallies is unprecedented in modern history, according to religion and politics experts.
This is an unacceptable blurring of church and state. Not even Bush tried this, and we would have given him hell had he done so. It is similarly difficult to believe that religious people would welcome the precedent of Obama vetting prayers. Prayer had no place at a presidential inauguration, and it has no place at subsequent presidential events.

Refusal to Enforce the Rule of Law

While Obama's desire to become the "prayer president" and his willingness to break campaign promises to fund organizations which engage in discriminatory hiring practices bother me greatly, these concerns pale in comparison to his refusal to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate top Bush administration officials for war crimes. I believe that this may well be the central decision by which his administration will be judged by future generations.

I have written about this previously and will undoubtedly continue to do so until Obama does the right thing and directs his Attorney General to appoint a special prosecutor. In this post, I would like to make two points I have not previously made on the subject.

First, I'd like you to remember the international goodwill that Bush had immediately following 9/11. He had strong international support and managed to squander it catastrophically by embracing "cowboy diplomacy" and invading a nation that had nothing to do with 9/11. Obama now finds himself in a similar situation with regard to America's standing in the world. The international community is looking to him to see if he will do the right thing. They are looking to him to see how serious he is about change. And so far, he has signaled that his administration will do nothing to hold their predecessors accountable for war crimes. This sends a clear message.

Second, I believe that Obama's refusal to hold those who authorized torture in our name accountable for their crimes leaves him with absolutely zero moral authority. This is an extremely dangerous position for an American president, as was recently illustrated by events in North Korea. Following what appears to be a missile launch in North Korea this weekend, President Obama sharply condemned North Korea's actions. During a speech in Prague, Obama said,
Rules must be binding, violations must be punished, words must mean something. The world must stand together to prevent the spread of these weapons. Now is the time for a strong international response.
Rules must be binding and violations punished, huh? I agree completely, Mr. President, but how can you reconcile that principled stance with your own refusal to hold anyone accountable for committing war crimes? You can't.

Until Obama's administration produces a special prosecutor and begins a thorough war crimes investigation, he has zero moral authority from which to issue such pronouncements. This leaves him, and those of us he claims to represent, in a dangerous situation. If his reluctance to prosecute war crimes is merely a political calculation, it is a terrible one.

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