The Senate torture report is a condemnation of Mormon moral reasoning

*I just learned that I am being misinterpreted in a news article at the International Business Times. The reporter misquotes the title of this blog post (saying I find the report to condemn the Church, rather than to condemn the moral reasoning of some members) and then takes quotes out of context to make it seem like I am basically anti-Mormon (she says I conclude by saying we are morally bankrupt if we consider Bybee and Jessen to represent the best LDS moral thinking; I do say that, but I keep talking. In fact the next sentence is “I believe that the Church, the Gospel, and the Doctrine are great.”). I am not anti-Mormon and neither is this post. If you come here from that article, please know that this is not the post you are looking for.*

Since the release of the Senate torture report yesterday, one thought has refused to leave me: we contributed to this. Not just in the sense that Mormons overwhelming supported the Bush administration that implemented this approach nor in the sense that Mormons reportedly are very overrepresented in the intelligence community. No, two Mormons were very prominent in the drafting and the implementation of these policies and they are, by all accounts, considered to be good Mormons. Our brothers did this; so are we their keepers or no?

Bruce Jessen and Jay Bybee are our fellow saints. Jessen was called to be a bishop in 2012, years after having made a cool $80 million by developing the guidelines for developing the torture techniques used on Al-Qaeda terrorists and, possibly, anybody else who happened to wind up in the CIA’s black sites. He resigned from his calling one week after accepting it. Bybee, at the time a Justice Department Official, gave the protocols legal authorization, in spite of the fact that before and since a host of legal scholars and other politicians have declared the protocols illegal under international and U.S. law. Bybee has since become a federal judge on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and he continues to defend his decisions as legally correct (although, reportedly, he has expressed regret behind closed doors).

Certainly Bybee was under tremendous pressure (and was possibly influenced by deceptive information) when he signed the memos. Certainly Jessen was hoping to help his country. Neither of these factors mitigate what they did, while they may contribute to our understanding of how they acted. The truth is they were asked by their superiors to find a way around the most basic human rights and they did.

Mormons are known for being good folk, quick to help in a disaster, organized and generally happy. But there are also assumptions about our behavior, our deference to authority, that frequently appear. Take this quote from an article about Bybee, for instance.

Professor Blakesley said that while he liked Judge Bybee, “he has some basic flaws including being very naïve about leaders.”
“He has too much respect for authority and will avoid a confrontation no matter what,” the professor continued.

Consider the famous Milgram experiment. Should we consider what happened with Bybee and Jessen to be just another example of this? Possibly we are just average Americans, unlikely to question authority if it assures us that we act for the greater good and bear no personal responsibility. But I think that they aren’t wrong to note our deference to authority.

Am I alone in having met Mormons who argue that they hope to have the faith of Nephi or Abraham? Specifically the faith to take another person’s life because God asks? Does God or do the Twelve simply require yes-men? When, in Abraham, God states that we’ll be tested to see if we will do all things whatsoever [he] shall command [us], if we do that, is it to our salvation or our condemnation? After all, as God says in Ezekiel 25:25, after establishing that the people would not live according to the good commandments he had already given them, “I gave them also statutes that were not good, and judgments whereby they should not live.”

I am no prophet and I don’t seek to counsel the Lord. But if we, as a people, are creating good men who do not understand that it is inherently wrong to torture even the worst offenders, then we are not doing a good job at creating good men. If we create men who understand that torture is wrong in the abstract, but when faced with the pressure of keeping a job, the greed of potential government largesse, the opportunity to justify revenge and torture in the name of national security, they fold and authorize it, we are not doing a good job at creating good men. This should not be a position up for debate. I’m disgusted that it ever was.

I believe in repentance and I believe that the Lord can and will forgive these men their sins. I certainly hope he’ll do it for me. But if they represent the moral judgment of Mormonism’s best and brightest, the people who succeed in Washington and elsewhere, then we are morally bankrupt. If we can rouse ourselves to condemn young girls for wearing short skirts or or the terminally ill for wishing for a relatively quick and painless death, but we can’t find the wherewithal to come out strong and publicly against torture, then we are morally bankrupt.

I believe that the Church, the Gospel, and the Doctrine are great. They are all capable of inspiring people and movements to greatness. I’ve seen glimpses of it in my life. If we wish to build Zion, it is necessary that we find this inspiration. But we won’t and can’t so long as we are also capable of raising up torturers who consider themselves, and are considered to be by the church at large, good Mormons.


  1. I’ve yet to see a convincing argument that Bybee’s involvement is an indictment of his morality. The moral call was Bush’s (to torture or not to torture?). The legal justification, which Bybee was asked to determine, created space for Bush to make that call, sure. But that says nothing about Bybee’s morality or his Mormonism. Only his understanding of executive authority (which, let’s face it, is hardly constrained by “law” anyway, see e.g., drone strikes).

    Can’t necessarily say the same for Jessen. But for Bybee, the point seems fairly clear: his involvement was legal and institutional, not moral.

  2. To put this as gently as I can: Baloney. There always have been and always will be individuals in the Church who act unrighteously in every conceivable way … and yet countless others go on doing good, serving God and man. We obviously can and do “find this inspiration” regardless of the evil of some. The “one heart” concept of Zion does not that every man’s evil is eradicated, but that those who become a part of Zion share righteousness as a common heritage and practice. That someone removes himself from that unity does not mean the failure of Zion.

    Condemn evil, by all means. But put the blame for evil where it belongs, and don’t pretend evil comes from God or from those who are doing all they can, fallible though we are, to follow God.

  3. Why stop there, what about all the soldiers who kill during wartime? If it is always “inherently wrong to torture even the worst offenders” then isn’t it even worse to *kill*, including killing many who are innocent, such as in civilian bombing? The president of the twelve himself dropped bombs on people, should you condemn him too? Or what about LDS people who work in the weapons industry making killing machines?

    Of course this is ridiculous. You may be a pacifist (I actually come pretty close to that myself), but you have to make a consequentialist argument for it. Good people may disagree about if and when normally heinous acts (e.g. bombing civilians, torturing) may be justly carried out by the state to prevent greater evil. I don’t see how you can simply conclude that people who disagree (or were wrong) about the utility of torture deserve to have you call them wicked. I say this even though I probably agree with you on this particular case.

  4. I think the church should have condemned the psychologist instead of trying to promote him to Bishop when it did. Designing such horrible protocols is simply unjustifiable and this is not a case of someone simply doing his job. He chose to contract for this very job with the government. The main reason this gentleman didn’t become a bishop is that he was shamed into resigning. However he was called by the “church” still the same and I’m sure he kept all the money and I’m sure the church accepted his tithing. Without the shaming one could assume this guy would still be a bishop. He should be excommunicated for being an accessory to tortute.

    Shouldn’t the church do better?

  5. I am sympathetic to the OP’s position on torture. However, this sort of Manichean finger pointing on the issue strikes me as no more productive in actually helping us build Zion than the anti-gay, anti-secular jabs we have seen recently from those on the right. I don’t even so much disagree with the content of this post as I do with the tone. It could be very productive to ask if a Mormon-engendered deference to authority contributed to these men’s decisions, and to debate the merits or demerits of such deference. However, once you invoke such a phrase as “morally bankrupt,” I think you alienate those in the middle and anger your opposition.

  6. “The Church” didn’t call the bishop. His stake ultimately did, and it’s probably a case where due diligence was either not performed or that they just didn’t see it as a problem.

  7. I think any discussion of Mormons and torture GWB-style needs to include at least a mention of Alyssa Peterson, an RM and a U.S. soldier who was ordered to participate in torture, and refused. Her story is tragic, but I like to think her refusal to engage in that kind of behavior, even in an environment like the military, was at least in part a product of her religious faith.

  8. Great post. 100% agree.

    We live in a messy and ambiguous world. It seems it is impossible to not inherit its blood and sins in some way. When we make money for the good of our families and our communities we no doubt contribute to some inequity somewhere else. When we wage a just war to protect the innocent we also kill the innocent. This may be unavoidable this side of Eden.

    What galls me is not that we commit these sins — most men do — it’s that we do it with very little regret or self-awareness, the very things that would otherwise help us inch our way to Zion. There is no moral core to Mormonism beyond divine command ethics, which is the worst kind of moral relativism. Some reflection on basic ethics — be it Kant’s categorical imperative, or a sophisticated and wise working out of Bentham’s hedonic calculus — coupled with an anguished hope for divine guidance would at least, I think, make us more aware of our actions.

    It truly is jello-on-the-wall morality, which is very disturbing. For Bybee and Jessen, a salient ethical fact in their minds would have been the fact that their church has been silent on torture. I doubt either would drink a coffee, but they have contributed to the further moral decline of the west (“moral” defined as something other than the length of a woman’s skirt) with religious impunity. Coffee is condemned, torture is not. That’s the sum of it and it’s ugly.

  9. Unfortunately, this is a story of men who knew which way they faced. While I believe that we men in the Church are for the most part good and decent people, we simply are not taught any kind of moral framework for responding to authority in any way but deference. That doesn’t mean that Mormon men are bad; it just means that we have a gaping hole in our moral understanding. The Mountain Meadows Massacre is our most egregious example of this deference to unrighteous authority, and unfortunately it appears that we have not fully learned our lessons from that and other experiences in our past.
    I don’t know Jay Bybee’s heart, but it deeply bothers me to know that a group of horribly misguided people viewed him as dependable, reliable, and someone who could be counted upon.

  10. I have to join the “baloney” side — the original posting talks of righteousness and ZIon and forgiveness, yet contains none itself. Condemn a whole religion because of one’s disagreements with the political views of two of its adherents? The original posting is about politics, not religion. The same error would be made in using JFK’s Bay of Pigs invasion as the basis for an anti-Catholic rant.

  11. Ronan: Interesting thoughts regarding Mormonism’s moral core and the Church’s silence on some (many?) moral issues. I’ll have to chew on those for a while. It strikes me, however, that neither a deontological nor a utilitarian moral framework can neatly answer all of life’s tough questions. Would you have church leaders formally endorse one or the other? It seems like we frequently invoke elements of each – along with a healthy aspiration for divine guidance – all the time; even if we don’t typically invoke Bentham or Kant over the pulpit. I will agree, however, that we tend to elevate the virtue of sustaining those in authority above that of righteously resisting them when they are in error.

    Tim: Thanks for pointing out the Alyssa Peterson story. Tragic and compelling, indeed! A good example, I think, of how sometimes the jello does a pretty good job of sticking to the wall. :-)

  12. The bloggernacle has been highlighting these men for years, and for years I have been deeply troubled by their actions and the church’s silence. #andyettheyexcommunicatekate
    I think we as congregants are overly impressed with leadership (alpha male propensities) and the prosperity doctrine (wealth). Add a middle initial to their name and a stay-at-home wife and we are star-struck with GA potential. Long ago I heard that satan was once portrayed in the temple as a contemporary man, handsome and convincing. Today, he is a character from the past, easily recognizable in red clothing and a Faustus-like laugh. We miss the opportunity to teach the fact that moral corruption can be disguised as success and righteousness and walk among us. But hey, I guess we shouldn’t worry our pretty little heads about that possibility any more. God put him in time-out all those millennia ago. We can easily spot evil by the red cape and smell of coffee and cigarettes.

    I am glad I’m not in a ward with these men as it would be a trial for me to listen to them speak of the savior, Golgotha and the atonement knowing that the roman policy and torture techniques that killed him are helpful formulas for work and wealth.

  13. I agree completely with the OP. Unfortunately, the moral core of Mormonism as I have seen it taught everywhere I have lived and served is that being a “good person” means being a “good” (i.e. obedient) Mormon who does what his/her leaders say. The assumption that these are the same leads to some pretty egregious behavior, including what is outlined in the OP.

  14. John, I have to think about it, but I’m pretty sure I disagree with you here. You omit a discussion of the role of an attorney and legal ethics, which I feel are central, at least in the case of Bybee. I say that not to excuse anyone or anything, but to say that your post does not drill down quite enough.

    I have my own thoughts on torture and America, and maybe I’ll post them up.

  15. >It strikes me, however, that neither a deontological nor a utilitarian moral framework can neatly answer all of life’s tough questions. Would you have church leaders formally endorse one or the other?

    Walter, I quite agree that neither Kant nor Mill can neatly solve all of life’s problems. That’s not my point. I am just asking that we have a *basic awareness* of moral philosophy beyond “the church says so” because if we don’t then we have no moral core on which to build when the church is silent. So, no, I don’t want the church to endorse deontology or utilitarianism but simply to foster an environment where the knottiness of moral philosophy is admitted. The divine command ethics we practice encourages unquestioning obedience to authority. Sometimes this goes horribly wrong.

    Suggestion: BYU’s excellent bioethics classes could be simplified and put into the Sunday curriculum, not because they give the answers but because they explain the process.

  16. I think this can be an example of what so many presidents of the church refer to when they warn not to have blind confidence in people in leadership positions.

    President George A Smith negated the church magazine statement “when our church leaders have spoken, the thinking has been done” and Brigham Young said on a couple different occasions versions of his statement “I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by him. I am fearful that they settle down in a state of blind self-security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence that in itself would thwart the purpose of God”.

    I don’t think the gospel is intended to turn us into yes men that unquestioningly follow or obey people in leadership positions.

  17. I was disgusted at some of the information released this week in regards to torture. But I agree this post is baloney for the reasons Ardis mentioned.
    Also, with all due respect, this is an amazingly tone deaf post. There was widespread criticism about the Bishop who questioned Harry Reid’s temple worthiness a few weeks ago because of his public positions. These guys are not even politicians. They don’t have Reid’s pulpit to defend themselves. They were essentially private citizens who were asked to render advice during a time when we were all scared of imminent terrorist attacks. While I disagree with what they did, I cannot judge their personal worthiness. You could make your point without personally attacking two fellow members of our church.

  18. By the way, what do you mean we can’t find the wherewithal to come out strong and publicly against torture? Do you think anyone actually believes the church supports torture? Or is this a suggestion that we publicly excommunicate these guys?

  19. Directionally I agree, and/but . . .

    I. Regarding Mormon moral reasoning: I think the OP goes overboard in indicting Mormon moral reasoning so categorically. Mormon thinking has a tendency toward respect for authority, and a tendency towards ends-justified positions, but these are known flaws, tendencies to avoid, errors in the watch-out category. They’re real. They’re not new.

    II. Regarding torture: Torture is wrong. There isn’t an “other side”. There is no counter-argument. By contrast, however strongly I feel about various contentious issues, I recognize an “other side” on war (certain wars, just wars, defensive positions), on capital punishment (horrendous cases really happen and can make a case, on both sides), on abortion (there are two lives at stake, after all). But with respect to torture, I stand with the Geneva conventions:
    “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture. An order from a superior officer or a public authority may not be invoked as a justification of torture.”

    III. Regarding lawyers: First, to be clear, I know next-to-nothing about Jay Bybee and his work, and have no direct or personal judgment or opinion about him. But speaking about lawyers generally . . .
    a. To advocate a position is doing the job. Not a moral failing, no matter how unpopular the position, no matter how clear the final judgment against.
    b. To do a poor job–misinterpret, ignore evidence, get sloppy, miss the better argument–is a professional failing, can even be professional misconduct, might mean you shouldn’t do that job any more. But usually just failure, not a moral failing.
    c. But to do a poor job in furtherance of an ends-justified authority-driven wrong . . . somewhere down that road there is a moral failing.

  20. I agree wholeheartedly with John’s OP, if only because of the silence of Mormon leaders regarding these issues. The problem is not that a couple of bad apples turned up; the problem is that LDS culture creates a space where people like this can carve out a nook for the rightness and morality of this behavior. John has cited Bybee and Jessen, but they are far from the only Latter-day Saints who have managed to convince themselves that torture was a-ok. And while Latter-day Saints get to hear an awful lot within their culture, including over the pulpit, about girls wearing multiple earrings, naughty words and movies, modesty, and the sins of coffee, there is scant moral instruction from leaders about whether or not torturing another human being is a swell idea or not.


    I love this post by Ardis, as it really expresses my thoughts on the issue just as well as I could express them myself.

  22. While other are concerned by this articles critique of individual members who were complicit in torture. I would like to hold up their antonym – Alyssa Peterson. A returned missionary from Arizona who then served at Abu Graib, and when asked to participate in the techniques Jessen and Bybee had created she refused, was disciplined, and then she committed suicide. She is the model of our moral courage. To speak out for morality and true LDS principles in the face of institutional sanction.

    In the words of Joanna Brooks

    “Every Mormon should know the story of Alyssa Peterson because her story affirms that our tradition has the power to inspire its members to “dare to be different,” as the familiar Mormon slogan goes: to hold to our principles even when it is difficult or unpopular…..
    Who will Mormons be in our global 21st century? Will we identify more strongly with institutional power and national identity or with individual conscience? And could it be that a robust internal discussion about human rights is on the Mormon horizon?”

  23. Bro. Jones says:

    So perhaps the bigger question is how much due diligence we want to see for leadership callings, and what we want the scope of that to be. Beyond the standard temple recommend questions, would we expect stake/GA leadership to research the following for potential bishops, stake presidents, EQ/RS presidents, etc?

    1) criminal background check
    2) credit report
    3) statement of assets
    4) if candidate holds a job, a detailed analysis of job duties to ensure that they do not violate church teachings
    4a) recommendations from candidate’s co-workers and management to ensure that their performance does not violate church teachings
    5) analysis of social media activity

    I’m not being facetious, I’m really wondering. To be perfectly frank I doubt that Bruce Jessen’s stake president had much insight into his job, and I doubt even more that he asked any questions about it. Would we expect him to? And if he did, what action would we expect?

  24. John Hatch! Do my eyes deceive me??

  25. K.L. Jackman says:

    If we take the partisan bickering out of the question, what’s left is a fair question: where’s the line between respecting authority (kings, presidents, rulers, magistrates, bishops, prophets) and deciding for ourselves? How does the Nuremberg defense fit into the notion of individual responsibility?

    This is a question of more than ordinary importance for Mormons. Justification is a lesser form of righteousness that requires less internalized understanding of the underlying principle. Christ heavily criticized the highly disciplined, but fundamentally empty religious practice of his day because those underlying principles had been lost to the practice of strict obedience.

    I didn’t see personal condemnation here, so much as the use of current and cogent examples of how deference to institutional authority *can* lead good Mormons to actions we would ordinarily consider morally dubious—yet we feel justified that we were just following orders. A difficult and troubling question that deserves to be understood on its own terms.

  26. On the good news, the church cleaned up on the tithing they paid. I wonder if they paid on gross or not.

  27. Legal friends,
    It is possible that I am misjudging the legal ethics behind Bybee’s decision to sign the torture memos. My impression is that many people have disputed the legitimacy of those memos and, as Bybee himself has apparently expressed regret regarding his signature, I had thought that the decision was not necessarily his finest legal work. I may well be wrong; I ain’t no lawyer. In any case, arguments that executive privilege extends to revoking the Geneva conventions and authorizing torture seem to hold the law up as empty if they are legit.

    Baloney friends,
    I am not saying that these men should be excommunicated or disciplined in some way. For all I know, it has happened at some regional level that I am not aware of. Perhaps it is the reason Bro. Jessen resigned (I know there is some speculation in that department, but I have no facts and no way to search for them).
    I’m not saying that the Church is evil. I am saying that I think that if we couldn’t recognize that what these folks were involved in was evil, then something is seriously wrong. I don’t think it negates all the good we do, but good and evil doesn’t work that way anyhoo. I could be the world’s greatest philanthropist, but if I had a habit of killing one child a year I’d still be considered evil, no matter how many lives I saved or improved. The church didn’t make these men do horrible things, it just didn’t seem to recognize what they had done. That is what is troubling to me.
    Also, I was very careful to say that the status of Jessen’s and Bybee’s repentance is between them and God. I have no position regarding the state of their soul; I’m even willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

    I had heard of Specialist Peterson, although I was unaware of the specifics of her passing. She appears to have stood up for morality in a manner which should make Mormons proud. The end of her short life is, in all ways, a tragedy. I believe that she should be held up as a hero in the church.

  28. A few weeks ago in this space we were lauding Helmuth Huebner’s courage and sacrifice in the face of tyranny. I like to imagine that he and Alyssa Peterson are sitting at some cafe table in the Spirit World, sipping some empyrean beverage and sharing what it was like to take a stand—different stands, different circumstances—against the oppression they faced. Heaven knows they both deserve the commiseration and comfort.

    Wherever one personally lands on today’s cases, I think John C’s point about the comparatively unhelpful institutional focus on skirt length is well taken. The essence of the Mormon moral project, especially as taught to our youth, needs to go beyond the blanket rejection of certain sexual, dress and consumption mores if we are to prepare ourselves for the larger moral tests we might face, and fail, all while duly rejecting said mores. Faithfulness in small things is meant to lead to faithfulness in big things, but faithfulness in small things is not always as flexible or agile as we would like. The moral muscle group flexed to eschew a second ear piercing in deference to the Bednar talk is not quite the same as the muscle group flexed while deciding *not* to defer to an unrighteous authority, however defined. Acknowledging these distinct muscle groups, and teaching about God’s expectations for the development of both, might help our youth anticipate that their expression of personal righteousness in different situations might require different relationships to authority. That hard-won understanding (I certainly fall short), drawn upon in a host of (likely) obscure and unpublicized moments to come, could bless many lives. Here’s my toast to that hope.

  29. I wonder to what extent it matters to those who wag their fingers at John C. that they and Messrs. Bybee and Jessen share not only church membership but also US citizenship. For example, Marc excuses Bybee and Jessen for acting during “a time when we were all scared of imminent terrorist attacks.” Although ambiguous, he seems to be referring to all members of the church; yet I can assure him that many members outside the US did not share the fears that justified/motivated/served as an excuse for torture. Moreover, I have a hard time imagining US Mormons mounting much of a defense of foreign members who might serve their own governments in similar ways.

  30. I think loyalty to principle over loyalty to country or church is the lesson that we need to learn from this. Also, it’s unfortunate that the church supported the Iraq war and the hysteria driven by the media and its masters from 2003 forward. This probably contributed to these two men in making their poor decisions. Also, the prospect of splitting $80 million probably didn’t hurt. I hope Mr. Jensen and Judge Bybee are happy with all of this publicity. We know their victims are not happy.

  31. >a defense of foreign members who might serve their own governments in similar ways.

    Great point, Peter. I think we also need to add American-Mormon hyper-patriotism to this sad mix.

    I’ve been thinking about Alyssa Peterson too. I doubt Bybee and Jessen would be comfortable with torture were they to find themselves in Tal Afar with the visceral muck of torture staring them in the face. Put on a suit, and justify it from afar, and things change. It may be going too far to bring male Mormon obedience to male Mormon authority into play, but it does make one wonder.

    The salient point remains: if your moral compass is only what the church tells you to do, you will find it easier to sign a torture memo than drink a cup of coffee. That is where we fail.

  32. Amen to hpm’s comment about muscle groups! The mental muscle group needed to resist unrighteous or abusive authority can only come when a person differentiates themselves from that authority. The individual claims their personal choice, personal power, and personal influence. They are willing to stand alone and condemned by the authority if need for the sake of their personal integrity. The persona prefers this lasting integrity rather than the security they feel from the authority that showers approval for their compliance. I think we Mormon’s could benefit from more work in this department.

    The post raises an important question about what role ConMo culture may have played in these men’s morally bankrupt behavior. I am not sure if ConMo is a thing yet but I really want a shorter slang for discussing the Conservative Mormon culture that pervades my faith community.

  33. “For example, Marc excuses Bybee and Jessen for acting during “a time when we were all scared of imminent terrorist attacks.” Although ambiguous, he seems to be referring to all members of the church; yet I can assure him that many members outside the US did not share the fears that justified/motivated/served as an excuse for torture.”

    You’re creating quite a straw man. I was not referring to members of the church. Also I don’t think it was just U.S. citizens who were concerned at the time. I know it was controversial both in and out of the church.

    For the record, what I was suggesting is that it was unfair to make worthiness judgments on these men based on 20/20 hindsight. Or publicly question their worthiness. I also think there is a bit of hypocrisy when it is acceptable to question their worthiness and yet flog the bishop who questioned Harry Reid’s worthiness. I say this as someone who supported Obama this past election and disagree with Bush’s policies on torture (or enhanced interrogation techniques if you prefer).

    Isn’t it possible that, while we praise Alyssa Peterson, we try to have compassion for Bybee? At the very least, I don’t think it’s right that we call him and Jessen out publicly and question their worthiness (or suggest that one of them has already been disciplined). Or use their names to try and make the huge leap to suggest Mormons are lemmings or that we prefer torturers over coffee drinkers.

  34. “Or what about LDS people who work in the weapons industry making killing machines?”

    Truth be told, I think it’s fair to expect a mormon moral code to make it very hard for mormons to be comfortable in a lot of industries in which we tend to excel. Like, a whole heckuva lot. This post doesn’t need to be about torture lawyers; it could be about any job or industry that makes the world worse or hurts or takes advantage of people, grinds the faces of the poor, etc.

  35. Sorry. Make that “…that pervades my U.S. Mormon faith community.”

  36. Thomas Parkin says:

    What does a well person look like in their relation to authority? We have a model that says that as we become more righteous we become more deferential, less questioning. And yet Jesus says that at some point our understanding of Him, and participation with Him, are such that we are no longer called servants but rather friends. A friend doesn’t receive commands, and shares in the process of instruction. It seems clear to me that as we become more like Christ (in all ways) – if we are becoming (which we are not) – that we increasingly free ourselves from authority, and that this model of increasing freedom and decreasing deference ought to be more in view. (But we have inherited so many misplaces fears.)

  37. John, you say that we aren’t doing a good job at creating good men, and that we’re morally bankrupt. That is where the baloney is. We create many, many good men and women, who have excellent moral compasses; much of that success is due to following the gospel and living a Mormon life.

    We all fall short, some of us spectacularly. But that isn’t *because* of your Mormon scapegoat — failures are acting contrary to Mormon expectations, not in accord with them.

  38. it's a series of tubes says:

    The tone of this post is repulsive.

    Thanks, Ardis, for an excellent post at Keepa repudiating this dreck.

  39. Thomas Parkin says:

    “Truth be told, I think it’s fair to expect a mormon moral code to make it very hard for mormons to be comfortable in a lot of industries in which we tend to excel. Like, a whole heckuva lot”

    It’s all Babylon. All of it. Lawyering, marketing, sales, manufacturing worthless and needless crap, counseling “wisdom” in a corrupt economics, enforcing unjust laws, working while being humanly recognized. God is going to burn it down. :)

  40. RJH,

    Not quite Kant, but the church did release an essay about individual conscience, giving a nod to the private, unmediated moral realm inside one’s own head:

    “In the end, our conscience is all we have. Everything else — material possessions, social status, wealth — can be taken away. But the beliefs and values that constitute our moral compass, the invisible space in our hearts that separates right from wrong, the meaning we attach to life and the internal goad that compels us to share our vision are the things that give us dignity.”

  41. Since when did Bybee and Jessen represent the best and brightest Mormons?

  42. My sense is that if one were to take a survey of U.S. Latter-day Saints and ask, “Is torture an appropriate method of interrogation of terrorists and other enemy combatants?” one would not receive an overwhelming, resounding “No.” One likely wouldn’t receive a resounding “Yes,” either, but I suspect it’d be pretty split. If I’m wrong, I’m happy to listen. But I find it hard to believe that those of us who see torture as not unambiguously condemned and reviled by Latter-day Saints are just wildly out of touch.

    I think that stems more from the politicization of torture than anything else, but it remains a troubling aspect of LDS culture that the allegiance to Republican politics is so strong that torture remains on the table for a lot of people.

    (Steve Evans, I’m everywhere! The question is, where have you been?)

  43. I’d say the problem isn’t that Mormonism somehow impels individuals to make decisions that seem obviously unethical or immoral (which I don’t read the OP as saying), but that it allows for certain spaces where the grossly immoral can seem perfectly consistent–or at least not inconsistent–with church teachings. Why is there room for any Mormon at all, let alone a significant number of us, to argue “well, maybe torture isn’t THAT out of step with my beliefs?” That doesn’t require arguing that people who think that way are morally bankrupt, just that there’s a significant, systemic blind spot in Mormon ethics.

  44. So we shouldn’t torture those who would see us killed for the sake of getting information that would help us. Should we just kill them? No. Should we just imprison them? No. Should we let them go? No. The truth is, until you’ve been put in the position where you had to make that decision, you don’t know and can’t speak to the other possibilities in it. Just like your mind does not comprehend those things eternal of which you have no knowledge due to the veil. If we follow Joseph Smith’s example, we are all lambs to the slaughter. One simple answer is free agency. Those that are in the above mentioned professional positions still choose their Master. This article reads of condemnation that which only God can give. I pray for Brothers Jessen and Bybee that they may continue to use their free agency, and to stay close to their Heavenly Father.

  45. “This post doesn’t need to be about torture lawyers; it could be about any job or industry that makes the world worse or hurts or takes advantage of people, grinds the faces of the poor, etc.”

    Bingo, Kyle. Which leads right into Ronan’s insight, also right on the money (sorry Marc, but it really is): The salient point remains: if your moral compass is only what the church tells you to do, you will find it easier to sign a torture memo than drink a cup of coffee. That is where we fail.

    I understand your impulse to defend the personal worthiness and character of the two individuals highlighted in the post. But they are just examples of the broader principle John C. is discussing, which Ronan succinctly summarized in the bolded quote. Those two individuals would never have drunk coffee — our shared religion counsels against it. But, absent counsel from Church leaders that torture is not okay, they apparently had a green light to make it possible for those in authority who were demanding it. Their individual moral compasses did not dissuade them from developing a torture framework (Jessen) or for signing off on the legal justification for it (Bybee).

  46. I am of the “baloney” opinion about the OP. However, not because of the specifics (the contention that torture is always morally wrong, as are those who do anything to support it).

    It seems that our Judeo-Christian history strongly supports the use of violence and lies, when justified. God supposedly murdered all but 8 of the earth’s people in order to start over. He ordered the murder of all people and herd animals in the land of Canaan by Saul and other leaders in order to protect his chosen people as he returned them there after 400 years in Egypt. He ordered the murder of Laban in order to secure the brass plates–and many other such uses of violence in the name of “greater good” justifications.

    In our own Mormon history “lying for the Lord” was a seemingly well-understood justification. Senator Smoot and Pres. Joseph F. Smith lied to Congress based on it. Our “correlated” curriculum, to name only the most recent example, was carefully crafted to hide any truths that were less than “faith promoting.”

    So, I conclude that God judges (assuming any such “judgement” actually exists) us based on our intent. If the intent of developing, authorizing, and conducting “torture” was a sincere desire to prevent or reduce harm to more innocent people, how can it be immoral? The argument remains over whether or not torture actually yields benefits outweighing its cruelty.

  47. fbisti, Ronan has written persuasively on this blog in the past that our moral compasses should also move us to condemn the “terror texts” in the Old Testament that serve as a justification for some of these things (by allowing people to point to precedent where such horrors were carried out in the name of God).

    It is a serious moral failing if our Mormonism does not move us to resoundingly condemn torture in all occasions. It flies in the face of every principle of the Sermon on the Mount. It is antithetical to every impulse of Christ’s New Testament ministry and his Two Great Commandments. If we Mormons feel that unless it is specifically condemned by Church leaders, it is potentially on the table, then we have ceded our own moral conscience to our “authorities” and that is not good. We need to be able to judge that independently if our Church leaders are not willing to take a public stand on the moral issue of torture (whereas they have declared it legitimate and necessary to take a “moral stand” on interfering with the civil rights of gay people — this shows us that they are in fact more than happy to raise their voice in the public square/debate on issues that they consider “moral” issues, and forces all of us members to ask ourselves why they do not view torture as a moral issue that is worthy of speaking out against in the public square).

  48. RJH,

    “The salient point remains: if your moral compass is only what the church tells you to do, you will find it easier to sign a torture memo than drink a cup of coffee.”

    I am not a learned man when it comes to Kant, Mill, Bentham, or any of the other philosophers that could be mentioned. Instead of the bioethics classes I perhaps should have taken, I took mathematical economics and econometrics courses. I was born and raised in the church, with the church’s teachings as the only clearly identifiable source of a moral compass–in fact, I really don’t know what else I could even point to as a source of moral guidance in my life. This is probably a deficiency, and if I wasn’t lazy beyond measure when it comes reading big words, I would probably try to improve myself.

    And yet, despite the having the deck as stacked against me as it apparently is, I personally find your statement about a willingness to sign a torture memo rather than drinking a cup of coffee more or less insane.

    The church hasn’t issued a 1st Presidency statement, to be read over the pulpit in Sacrament meetings the world over–and maybe that is a problem–but that isn’t exactly the sum total of what the church has told me to do. The church also, repeatedly, lesson after mind-numbing lesson, has implored me to be honest, to be charitable, and to discern between good and evil by staying close to the Spirit, seeking its influence, and following its promptings, no matter awkward they are.**

    Like many others, I’ve crossed streets to talk to people, crossed streets to avoid people, thrown away books or other media, disassociated from certain people, associated with some people, followed the lesson manual, ignored the lesson manual, and done (or not done) many, many other things solely because I was trying–far from perfectly–to do my best to follow the Spirit. I’d like to think that the end result of that practice is a sense of right and wrong that would result in me refusing to sign off on torture. But it would come down to spine, in the end–not moral reasoning.

    I don’t know why Bybee did what he did, but on its face, it looks less like authority-worship to me and more like a lack of spine. Are the two related to each other? Possibly, but I don’t see any clear reason to assume so (especially given that it’s easy to imagine authority-worshipers displaying spine in defense of their leaders). Sadly, the lack of spine afflicts nearly all of us when the right buttons are pushed.

    **I recognize that the church also stresses obedience to church leaders, and the obvious conundrum of “What if the Spirit says to disobey your Church leaders?” Since the bosses in question weren’t Church leaders, I don’t really see the relevance here, though.

  49. Torture is reprehensible. People who design or engaged in acts of torture are reprehensible. Organizations that tacitly or out-rightly approve such acts are reprehensible. Does the Mormon church approve of such acts or support such individuals? I would say no, the organization does not approve of such acts. But the organization obviously tacitly approves of/sustains individuals who are or have been engaged in acts of human torture. I think the author makes a valid point. And I think we are living in a time in history when organizations will need to address such issues head on. Unfortunately, addressing issues head on is not a hallmark of Mormonism.

    I also think Mormonism is not alone in helping produce the sort of people who (either directly or indirectly via their talent* to design models for torture) are comfortable inflicting pain or even death on other human beings. Mormonism, like everything else in this world, may be used for good or for evil. As for individuals, the test is easy: by their fruits ye shall know them.

    *Maybe we should talk about burying these talents. ..

  50. My $.02: I suppose people can argue about the particulars of the people involved, but I think the OP’s overriding point still stands.

    >>I am saying that I think that if we couldn’t recognize that what these folks were involved in was evil, then something is seriously wrong.

    and I also second RJH’s quip: “if your moral compass is only what the church tells you to do, you will find it easier to sign a torture memo than drink a cup of coffee. That is where we fail.”

  51. You guys should check out Jana Riess’s recent blog on the subject. In essence, the question she asks is, Do people like Bybee and Jessen (or whatever abstract evil they are accused of) typify the kind of morality that Mormonism encourages, or do people like Alyssa Peterson typify it?”

  52. On a phone and can’t really respond, but I do agree with Scott that noting that the Brethren haven’t explicitly condemned torture is a bit silly. They shouldn’t have to and if the only thing preventing us from sinning is explicit decrees from the Brethren we are in bigger trouble than even this post implies.

  53. I think that’s exactly what Ronan is saying, John.

  54. Also, Kyle, preach it, brother!

  55. Another key underlying point here is the ends-based reasoning involved on both Bybee’s and Jessen’s part. The ends seemed, to them, to justify the means, and so it seemed to pass muster under their moral compasses, apparently.

    It is legitimate to ask whether this is a weakness more broadly inherent in Mormonism, this type of ends-based reasoning. Those involved would have to look no further than Nephi slaying Laban (though he did not torture him). Is “lying for the Lord” legitimate or not? The Book of Mormon notes that liars will be thrust down to hell. There is no carve-out there for lying for the Lord but one could make an argument that the ends-based reasoning behind “lying for the Lord” has been embraced by Church leaders in this dispensation, at times.

  56. “if your moral compass is only what the church tells you to do, you will find it easier to sign a torture memo than drink a cup of coffee. That is where we fail.”

    Honestly I think this is just absurd for so many reasons. First, Ardis addressed the suggestion that Bybee’s failing = the church’s failing on her site better than I could. Second, the idea that by saying “don’t drink coffee” more than “don’t torture people,” that the church therefore condones, turns a blind eye to, or raises future torturers is beyond the pale.

    I don’t know….things just got weird in this thread. The Church has taught me not to drink tea more than not to smoke marijuana. Does that mean it’s okay for me to go smoke a joint after I have had a really hard day as long as I don’t drink tea? I mean, just turn on the Bob Marley, light up, and tune out…..that’s not okay for me to do just because the church hasn’t addressed it much.

    Seriously….that would be bad, right?

  57. If Jessen or Bybee suddenly came out of the closet and admitted to being gay and for the last decade or so “living the gay lifestyle” on the sly, this conversation about their actions regarding the legality and practice of torture would probably be going differently for some participating and reading this thread.

  58. Marc, are you saying that the Church has taught not to torture such that Bybee could have seen himself restricted in his condoning of it? That the moral core that the Church provides its members includes the principle that torture is wrong?

    Why, in your view, hasn’t the Church spoken out publicly on the moral issue of torture (against it) as it does against gay marriage?

    I really think you’re getting too hung up on Bybee and Jessen. It is incidental that two of the architects of the US torture regime were Mormon high priests in good standing and appear not to have incurred any kind of discipline whatsoever for acts that are arguably as immoral as committing adultery. Maybe John C. made a mistake in using them as a reference or hook for his rant.

    Remove them entirely from the picture. The question remains: why doesn’t the Church speak out publicly on the moral issue of the objective immorality of torturing people in reliance on ends-based reasoning (that the ends of saving people from a future possible terrorist attack justify the means of torturing a suspected terrorist in violation of international law and common human decency, not to mention all impulses of the Sermon on the Mount and Christ’s ministry)?

    Do we Mormons need to look to the Episcopalian Church or the Catholic Church for moral authority on this issue and on many other issues aside from short skirts on girls, homosexuality, chastity (fornication, adultery, masturbation), and pornography?

  59. Exactly, aheez. Those who are taking issue with John C.’s impuning of their character by virtue of their willingness to be pillars of America’s torture policies would align themselves with the Church on the moral issue of homosexuality that it has taken a stand on, and would join John C. in calling their moral character into question.

  60. Scott,

    Your folksy eschewing of big philosophical words is a nice attempt to play the aw-shucks card, but I’m not convinced. My comments are saying something quite specific about the foundations of Mormon ethics, and it’s almost exactly not what you are claiming them to say. But never mind.

  61. As an aside, I disagree vehemently with about half the comments on this thread but I appreciate that they are made in good faith with decent grammar and coherent argument. One can only imagine the horror that this thread would be in your usual internet forum. #bloggernacleWIN

  62. RJH,
    It’s not playing an aw-shucks card at all–it’s acknowledging that I am unlearned in even the most basic of moral philosophers outside of what I’ve picked up at Church and in casual conversations, and that–even worse–I drank deeply from the wells of business school instead. Nor was it “folksy”–I said I’m too lazy to pick up big books that require effort at this point in my life, because I got other problems to deal with.

    Your comments are indeed saying something very specific–at least as far as I understand them. It looks to me like you’re saying that a) Mormonism relies on statements from leaders in place of an ethical core, and b) the result of this practice is an inability to deal with issues upon which the Church has been silent. Is that not what you’re saying?

  63. Another way to look at this issue: which is the greater moral failure, forced rectal feedings or consensual anal sex between consenting adult males?

  64. How do we police our own? We have to judge to police our own. Do we constantly have to be judging others? how much time should we spend judging ourselves? Do we ever judge each other to avoid judging ourselves?

    War is super super hard. It’s horrible. My grandpa was a marine colonel who had a night watchman fall asleep on guard duty-the consequence for that is death. He never said what he did, or how he excused the young man. war is hell.

    I don’t hold the church responsible. I put the responsibility firmly on the person. If I blame the church…why can’t they? or others? Do we need to be commanded in all things?

    Is the church also responsible for every good thing people have done? do we do nothing of our own accord? Is the church our king?

  65. That you could even ask that and consider yourself a good Mormon is a signal that something has gone very wrong.

  66. (response to ahjeez)

  67. Trond, I am in agreement with the OP and you.

  68. “Marc, are you saying that the Church has taught not to torture such that Bybee could have seen himself restricted in his condoning of it? That the moral core that the Church provides its members includes the principle that torture is wrong?”

    In short, yes. I would much rather sustain someone who drinks coffee than tortures others. I don’t think I am alone.

    Also, my guess is there are a lot more coffee drinkers in our ranks than torturers. Does that mean the church produces coffee drinkers? Or that the church has failed as a moral leader because we have so many coffee drinkers?

  69. Sorry for misunderstanding your very strangely worded comment (12:07pm).

  70. Marc, why does the Church preach against drinking coffee but not against torturing other people, whether during wartime or otherwise?

  71. Trond, it preaches love very very frequently. Maybe it’s assuming we have brains and understand that torture does not equal love. It really doesn’t teach don’t drink coffee nearly as much as it preaches love. I figure our whole lives are to learn how to love. That includes feeding the hungry, caring for the poor, clothing the naked. Are we all waiting for the prophet to pick our particular HUGE problem and say not to do it, or should the spirit and the command to love, slowly change us?

  72. Trond, the church teaches us to treat others as we would want to be treated. We should love our neighbor. We should choose the right. We should be Christlike. I believe that covers torture.

    The church, to my knowledge, has not been explicit about genocide either. Does that indicate to you that we condone it or are likely to produce people who do?

  73. I’ll chip in a third on RJH’s quip: “The salient point remains: if your moral compass is only what the church tells you to do, you will find it easier to sign a torture memo than drink a cup of coffee. That is where we fail.” This article immediately came to mind when I read this OP: I’m not sure whether the church creates more Alyssa Petersons or creates Jessen and Bybees, but I certainly think we don’t do enough to curb the tendency toward being “yes men.”

    Now, there’s a potential valid point to be made about the role of lawyers not being the one holding the trigger. Should an LDS lawyer never defend a guilty person in court? Ridiculous! Our legal system demands that everyone get a fair trial which includes a capable defense. This isn’t exactly that kind of lawyering, but it’s part and parcel of that profession. I’m not defending torture in saying that, just the ability within our society to defend or argue any point, even if it’s wrong or immoral. Acting on that is another matter entirely.

    I’d like to think I’m an Alyssa Paterson (probably due to weak stomach as much as moral fiber), but without facing these things in person, it’s hard to say how we act. Would any of us have participated in the Inquisition? Would we have followed orders in Nazi Germany? Sometimes we are deliberately ignorant about the direct consequences of our actions, and sometimes we are just removed enough to truly be ignorant of them.

  74. “Are we all waiting for the prophet to pick our particular HUGE problem and say not to do it, or should the spirit and the command to love, slowly change us?”

    I think that John C. is saying that we are supposed to be moral agents ourselves and do what is right, whether the Church has taken a position for or against a thing (or whether acting morally puts us in opposition to a position the Church has specifically taken or in agreement with an underlying principle that appears to be important to the Church). His post seems to regret that this has not been the case here and asks why Bybee and Jessen could do what they did. Did they not think it was morally wrong? If not, why not? Would they have thought it was morally wrong if some General Authority had given a conference talk specifically stating that torture was against God’s will, was sin?

  75. “Trond, the church teaches us to treat others as we would want to be treated. We should love our neighbor. We should choose the right. We should be Christlike. I believe that covers torture.”

    Marc, I agree with that and am glad that you stated it so. I believe in those teachings and I believe in the Church and the Gospel.

    Do you think that our current Church leaders think that George W. Bush was wrong to torture suspected al Qaeda terrorists in secret CIA prisons around the world, and to hold them in very questionable ethical circumstances indefinitely at Guantanamo Bay? That this ends-based course of action has been morally wrong, sinful, evil?

  76. Not to change the topic or anything, what does it say about us as a people when one of our best and brightest, a former stake president, no less, would change position on important issues for political advantage, say virtually anything to please a certain demographic, and repeatedly brutalize the truth (according to independent fact checkers) in order to be elected to the highest office in the land? Did that particular question he asked probably thousands of times—the one about being honest in all your dealings—become so rote as to lose all meaning for this man? Just wondering.

  77. martha my love says:

    “I am not saying that these men should be excommunicated or disciplined in some way.”

    It’s not like they did anything as truly evil or embarrassed the church like Kate Kelly, now is it?

  78. Trond, I don’t know President Monson’s take on Bush. I am sure he is against torture.

  79. it's a series of tubes says:

    Did that particular question he asked probably thousands of times—the one about being honest in all your dealings—become so rote as to lose all meaning for this man? Just wondering.

    Hey, I wonder stuff like that too! Except I wonder it about the one who actually succeeded in reaching the highest elected office a Mormon has ever held.

    Anyway, I’m just wondering! Not to change the topic or anything! So, what DOES this say about us as a people? And I want to know about the coffee thing too. I know a lot of coffee drinking Mormons! What does that say about us as a people?

  80. it's a series of tubes says:

    I suspect that this may cause cognitive dissonance for a few who visit BCC:

    Looks like my man Boyd K. called out torture as something that the Savior would pay the penalty for and thus was sin (torture is recited with terror, killings, and a host of other unpleasantries)

  81. “I suspect that this may cause cognitive dissonance for a few who visit BCC”

    Why do you suspect that?

  82. it's a series of tubes says:

    Because Boyd K Packer is an intolerant homophobe! And grumpy! And he represents the worst of the out of touch, old, white, iron rodders! His name must be a made a hiss and a byword! All hail the coming enlightenment!
    Sorry, don’t know what came over me there. Bandwagon thinking, apparently.

    I love that the guy so many love to hate is the guy who, yet again, spoke truth to power on this point. Makes me respect him even more than I already do.

  83. “Because Boyd K Packer is an intolerant homophobe! And grumpy! And he represents the worst of the out of touch, old, white, iron rodders! His name must be a made a hiss and a byword! All hail the coming enlightenment!”

    I don’t understand this. You seem to be talking to yourself.

  84. it's a series of tubes says:

    Trond, if your comment is serious, perhaps you might consider embarking on a general review of certain parts of the Bloggernacle and topics discussed therein.

  85. So you’re basically saying you don’t like BCC because you think people who read BCC don’t like President Packer?

  86. Yeah, iasot, that’s how we talk about BKP around here.

    Which is to say, argue with strawpersons all you want, but at least try to be creative.

  87. I’m neither a lawyer nor a psychologist so I don’t pretend to understand the intricacies of what these two brethren did or were asked to do and/or facilitate.

    War by its very definition is a theater of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man. Civilized people write rules, regulations, and guidelines for the conduct and practice of war in hopes that it might be less brutal. This is a good thing, I guess, but I’m not sure directives written in the cold clear light of day translate very well to implementation on the battlefield.

    At the field level, those we charge to do horrible things (warfighters) in order that we might sleep peaceably in our beds must often test the limits of propriety to defeat the enemy. Bear in mind this same enemy utterly disregards the laws of war and indeed builds key parts of its warfighting strategy around the knowledge we will treat the enemy with kindness, respect, and even deference.

    There is no civilized or humane way to fight a war. I humbly submit there is no effective interrogation technique or manual that has at its core making the enemy safe and comfortable.

    Taken from a macro view, those al-Qaeda and Taliban “fighters” who have been captured by coalition forces have been treated in a humane fashion – far better than those coalition forces who were captured by the enemy. I can be proud of that.

  88. Thomas Parkin says:

    “How do we police our own?”

    We shame each other. Duh!

    But now I’m thinking of the effectiveness of, say, powerful electric shocks in a TR interview. You say you you live the law of chastity, eh? DUNK HIM AGAIN, Brother Jones!!!

  89. Thanks everyone for your contributions. The thread is now closed.

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