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“Speaking Truth to Power” Redux

A group of progressive Methodists, accompanied by similar-minded other Protestants and Catholics, signed an “Open Letter to President Obama” earlier this summer warning against intervention in the Middle East, even as congress and public opinion have been moved toward action. Are they “speaking truth to power”, or just talking to themselves?

Published on: October 8, 2014
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  • Wayne Lusvardi

    Where are they now? In my hometown of Pasadena, California in 2008 there were peace activists with signs protesting the Iraq War on prominent street corners and staging a rally at the Rose Parade in 2008. They called themselves the White Rose Coalition, ironically appropriating the mantle of the youth and citizen resistance movement that emerged in Munich Germany in 1942.

    Anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan whose soldier-son was killed by enemy action during the Iraq War, was the icon of the movement calling for nationwide impeachment of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney for “high crimes and misdemeanors, and to end the U.S. occupation of Iraq.” Their organization, the Los Angeles National Impeachment Center (LANIC), CODEPINK, Troops Out Now Coalition, World Can’t Wait, ANSWER, Progressive Democrats of America, the Green Party, Veterans for Peace and Justice, all joined in supporting Congressman Dennis Kucinich of Ohio who had sponsored two Congressional resolutions to impeach Pres. Bush. The movement touted an MSNBC poll of 584,000 people who they claim 89% said Bush had committed an impeachable offense. They planned to distribute 20,000 antiwar pamphlets at the 2008 Rose Parade and to march behind the parade to gain attention to their movement.

    On Nov. 5, 2008, an antiwar letter was sent to new President elect Obama calling for immediate withdrawal from Iraq signed by the Rev. James Conn of the United Methodist Church, Rev. Ed Bacon of the All Saints Episcopal Church of Pasadena, 1960’s activist Tom Hayden of Progressives for Obama, Francis Anderson of 9/11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, etc.

    Pres. Obama reportedly arose from earlier groups of this movement. Reportedly in October 2002 in Chicago Obama delivered a speech at an antiwar rally stating: “I don’t oppose all wars. What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war. What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt of Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and other armchair, weekend warriors to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and the hardships borne. What I am opposed to is the attempt by political hacks like Karl Rove to distract us from a rise in the uninsured, a rise in the poverty rate, a drop in the median income – to distract us from corporate scandals.”

    Today, it is Islamic warriors in Iraq who are literally slitting throats to behead peaceable Christians and others. Forbes magazine reported in 2014 that only 1 in 8 of the medically uninsured were now covered at the expense of disrupting coverage for tens of millions of people with increased premiums and dropped coverage. The Washington Times reported in 2014 that the poverty level under Obama had reached a 50-year record. Reuters reported in 2014 that median incomes had declined $5,000 since 2007.

    Peter Berger has constantly reminded us in these pages that the consequences of most social movements often end up the opposite of what they intended. By their consequences we shall know them (Matthew 7:16).

  • John Stephens

    They were useful idiots. They are no longer useful, and won’t be until there’s another Republican in the White House.

    • Curious Mayhem

      Until then, savor the idiocy.

  • Wonder what would happen should the progressive signers of the “open letter” deliver, in person, a copy of the letter to the ISIL folk. I don’t think it would be pretty. Of course they could, with their last words, lay claim to the moral high ground.

  • Gary Novak

    Berger and Lusvardi are effectively speaking truth to obscenity. What strikes me is the fact that, since Obama’s foreign policy seems to share the worldview expressed in the Open Letter, his presidency becomes an instance of the obscene trafficking in cliches about speaking truth to power, addressing root causes, breaking the cycle of violence, mobilizing the international community, blah, blah, blah. Yet Obama’s approval ratings only slip slightly. A few independents experience buyer’s remorse, but 40% of Americans continue to approve of him. I think Berger is right in thinking that the religious left is talking to itself, but the troubling fact is that so many Americans don’t need convincing to support an obscene presidency. The pictured protesters don’t even want token resistance to the Islamic State, but most of those 40% of Obama supporters recognize that he still holds the view professed in the 2002 speech Lusvardi quotes from: foreign war is a distraction from domestic inequality. The fact that most people are worse off under Obama does not raise the possibility of falsification of their ideology in the minds of the faithful but demonstrates the need for a doubling down against obstructionist Republicans.

    Where did all this bonehead obscenity come from? Liberal clergy aren’t the only ones yapping about root causes. The worldview of the Open Letter is prevalent in the academy. As Berger has pointed out, much of the radicalism of the sixties did not die but became institutionalized in the mainstream. Bonehead obscenity is part of the college curriculum. If I seem to exaggerate, it is my “neo-conservative guilt” speaking. For longer than I care to remember I was, to use another leftist cliche, not part of the problem but part of the solution. (Some solution.)

    • Corlyss

      You broke the code, Gary. A recent article by Mona Charen talks about the alleged Republican Latino problem and she makes an interesting observation about the different Latino immigrant classes, in the vein of “Who you are is where you were when,” an early template that spoke to generational differences now commonly captured in discussions about the differences between Boomers, GenXers, Millennials , etc. Her observation was that earlier Latino immigrants who came before the 60s are hardworking, self-reliant, contributors while the ones who arrived here in the 60s and later have come to an America that is so culturally crippled by the liberal narrative that America is an evil place with no right to force others cultures that immigrate here to conform to American habits of thought that it allows balkanization along ethnic lines, refuses to enforce English-only, and deploys all manner of social programs designed to perpetuate differences and poverty. IMO, these demonstrators are holdovers from those days when the liberal elites decided that because America was not perfect she could not be good, and therefore, anything short of angelic, preferably self-abasing, behavior was cause to flood the streets with protesters. They have lost their moral compasses.

      • Gary Novak

        I guess we are all code breakers in the sense that no one can see things for us. So it does me no good that Jim Sleeper has written “Liberal Racism” or that Jonah Goldberg has written “Liberal Fascism” until I break the code for myself and see the liberal “plausibility structures” in my neighborhood AS plausibility structures– and not simple truths. Of course, when I “alternate” to neo-conservatism, I am still not in the realm of simple truths but of neo-conservative plausibility structures. At its best, alternation not only reveals a new perspective– which might be experienced as “seeing the light” for the first time– but includes an awareness of the part played by one’s own volition in grounding it. There is a paradox in Luther’s “taking a stand” when he feels he cannot do otherwise. There seems to be an element of faith in the most rationally compelling alternations.

        I think it is that element of faith which accounts for Berger’s description of head-in-the-sand leftist pacifism as obscene, rather than simply irrational. At some point, the unintended consequences of actions become visible and, if continued, intended. But it is impossible to say exactly where that point is. Satirizing the implausibility of plausibility structures does not logically refute them. Inconvenient facts are, after all, only inconvenient.

        But the inconvenience of the left’s position on ethnic and racial issues did play a role in my alternation. I began to see the left’s support for teachers’ unions which protect incompetence, demand increased educational funding, and recommend affirmative action as a remedy for the failures of minority education as– obscene. The left’s reluctance to acknowledge minorities as responsible agents (lest we “blame the victim”), its substitution of pseudo-respect for ethnic roots rather than its provision of skills that would enable minorities to compete with middle-class whites without affirmative action, and– to top it off– the left’s response to 9/11 as “blowback” for American imperialism made me wonder (in the words of an essay by Mitchell Cohen, editor of the left-leaning journal “Dissent”) “Can There Be A Decent Left?” Even leftists were beginning to see the left as indecent, obscene. (My approving mention of that article ended my friendship with one leftist.)

        So yes, I too have finally become a breaker of liberal codes.

    • Wayne Lusvardi

      Let’s take Peter Berger’s questions a couple of steps deeper.

      He asks “what truth”? What is or was the “truth” about America’s wars in the Middle East? As we can see clearer now, the Iraq War was not a war of occupation meant to fulfill Left or Right illusions: depose Saddam Hussein, eliminate WMD’s, a Halliburton-backed war for oil, or to build democracy in the Mid East.

      Rather, the Iraq War was a War of Containment to hold the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the expansion of the Iranian Islamic Revolution in check at the behest of our two-faced “allies” the Saudis, Pakis, Turks and others. Some of these same “allies” were initially complicit in 9/11 to provoke the U.S. to fight a mercenary war for them against their enemies. Recently, Vice President Biden, playing the role of Court Jester, has recently spilled the beans about the role of our “allies” in backing ISIS to again provoke our involvement in the Mid East.

      This reality of entrapment doesn’t fit any neat ideologies. This is what is meant that “you may not have an interest in war, but war has a way of taking an interest in you”; as Pres. Obama and the entire cultural Left has been unable to see in a classic case of cognitive dissonance. Under cognitive dissonance theory, the more reality or “truth” you are confronted with, the stronger your contrary belief gets. That is Until your illusions of “dumb wars” hit the proverbial wall, which is what has happened with the rise of ISIS.

      No matter how much a war of containment was in our geostrategic interest, wars of containment are difficult to legitimize so secondary legitimations arise, as listed above (WMD’s, etc). But secondary legitimizations are inevitably found to be weak and not withstand scrutiny and thus the Iraq War was perceived as “dumb” (Obama’s term) and thus illegitimate.

      Using Berger’s observation that the Left is merely talking to itself, what became the “truth” about the Iraq War met the definition of “self evident” out of the Devil’s Dictionary: “evidence to one’s self and nobody else.” What the Left believed about the Iraq War was a self-fulfilling prophecy that finally was unfulfilled (just as many historic religious or Communist prophecies eventually were unfulfilled – see Leon Festinger “When Prophecy Fails”). Thus, the Left has no claim to any higher “truth” to speak to power about the Iraq War.

      Let’s take Berger’s second question: “What power?” From what we’re mostly left to learn on our own (except for Joe Biden’s pretend “foot in mouth” disease), is that the all-powerful U.S. isn’t so powerful. We’ve been entrapped into a war not of our wanting but out of what Niccolo Machiavelli might call “necessity”. If we didn’t aid our “allies” the price of oil might go sky high, stock markets might fall, more terrorist attacks might hit the homeland, and U.S. political regimes might fall with it. The real world is multi-polar in power and more like Brer Rabbit’s “Briar Patch” than Barack Obama’s dumb zone.

      This is what foreign policy thinkers like liberal Leslie Gelb in his book “Power Rules”, calls “mutual indispensability” (“we swim together, or we hang apart”) **. Contrary to Machiavelli’s notion of necessity, Gelb and Obama say wars are rarely necessary, as necessity is prone to being invented. But the war may have been manipulated but it may be no less painful or unnecessary.

      Postmodern conceptions of wars as no longer necessary have led to the Obamaian illusions that the U.S. can tell its less powerful “allies” that it doesn’t want to get its hands dirty any longer and there won’t be any consequences to suffer for pulling out. Here we have to be reminded of some Machiavellian realpolitik: “men never do anything well except through necessity”.

      Where religion has a role in such historical messiness is to help see that wars often may be contrived and based on entrapment and thus there is no perceived necessity; while at the same time understanding that to let ISIS expand is to let evil proliferate worldwide. “Americans cannot fight wars as cynics”, says pacifist theologian Stanley Hauerwaus. But as Berger has observed “Americans want government policies to be morally charged. They will not easily accept a foreign policy based on sheer Realpolitik.”

      Neither can America fight wars as adolescent ideologues that don’t want to see that the consequences of not fighting evil that doesn’t affect me now are way worse than the postmodern notion that fighting the evil that doesn’t affect me today is dumb. Once Iran has “the bomb” the world will be potentially morally changed.

      • Gary Novak


        I’m not sure I agree with your assessment that the rise of ISIS has driven Obama’s illusions about “dumb wars” into the proverbial wall. Berger is not sure, either. He wrote: “Have the recent horrors committed and proudly displayed on television by the Islamists really changed [Obama’s] mind? Or has he simply, obviously with great reluctance, resorted to military force because he was pushed there by an outraged public opinion and the sharp decline in his approval ratings?” I think his “obvious great reluctance” pretty much answers the question.

        In my response to Corlyss, I said that when the unintended consequences of actions (or policies) become visible, those consequences must then be regarded as intended. But I don’t think Obama sees the rise of ISIS as a consequence of his (immaculate) policies. That doesn’t mean that we should respect his sincerity; it means we should recall the Berger/Goffman definition of sincerity as believing your own propaganda. That’s not a virtue; it’s bad faith. At some point, the refusal to own the consequences of our actions becomes an obscene violation of the ethic of responsibility.

        So, when Berger says, “I have no idea what Obama really believes about the world,” the implication is that it doesn’t really matter. As you put it in closing your (deservedly well-received) opening post, “By their consequences we shall know them.” WE can know the virtual Obama, even if he is sure he will be vindicated by the next flying saucer.

        (Incidentally, I agree with Berger’s description of the “sharp decline” in Obama’s approval ratings– on specific issues, like foreign policy. But, overall, the whole (40%) is greater than the sum of the plunging parts.)

        • Wayne Lusvardi

          Gary a government official once famously said there were known unknowns, unknown knowns, knowns knowns, and unknown unknowns. A classic contingency table.

          Obama, Defense Department strategists, and Secretary of State Officials must have been able to foresee the unintended consequences of an Iraq War pull out. And they must have advised the President of those consequences.

          There is a good but not perfect parallel between the Iraq War and the Vietnam War. The Boat People, Re-education camps, and Killing Fields of post-war Vietnam are not that long ago that they have faded from our memories. So I would say that what Obama and his administration were working with was a foreseeable unintended consequence, thus raising the moral aspect significantly.

          I worked for a huge water agency in the West for 20 years. In another Walter Mitty life, I analyze water policy for a free market think tank in California and another in Texas. There is a saying about droughts that seems apropos to the restart of the Iraq War:

          “Any party which takes credit for the rain (or the war pullout) must not be surprised if its opponents blame it for the drought” (or war restart). [Quote from Dwight D. Morrow].

          • Gary Novak

            I agree that Obama was working with a foreseeable unintended consequence which ought to have been foreseen. But despite his access to government resources and recent historical precedent, it was not foreseen because, when one has a God’s-eye-view of the world, one needn’t learn from the past or listen to underlings. I also agree that such arrogance “raises the moral aspect significantly.” Our only difference seems to be that you think he might have belatedly learned something from hitting the wall, while I think he will go to his grave thinking that he was ahead of his time and too great for America.

  • Corlyss

    Isn’t this the 60s residue “Rent-a-Protest?” I think I recognize a couple of them from the Berkeley Free Speech Movement . . . Do they really care about anything except opposing the government regardless?

    • Curious Mayhem

      Unless one of their approved hacks is in charge of said government.

  • Anthony

    “…is a group of people speaking to themselves.” I rather leave that conclusion to personal interpretation (where one sits). Though one cannot deny, religious institutions (and protestors) have sometimes served as civilizing forces (as staging vehicles for reflection and moral action) – as essay reveals.

  • Randy Thompson

    I too had no idea of what President Obama believed about the world, until it dawned on me that his faith affiliation was United Church of Christ and that he seemed to view the world in much the same way as UCC denominational officials (or at least the ones I remember). This made sense to me, and it still does. However, he does seem to be a bit less cut off from reality than religious progressives cocooned in the ever shrinking ghetto of liberal Protestantism.

  • Helena Vilaça

    Since I discovered Peter Berger’s blog I read religiously his posts every week. Some of them I have already shared and discussed with my students, as I teach sociology of religion and other sociologies.

    As European, I do not feel much legitimacy to join the discussion but this time I got some courage to do it. Maybe because I am a Portuguese Methodist – and now I can imagine Prof. Berger’s smile of my exotism 🙂

    In Europe like in US, the progressive Methodists and usual Protestants suspects follow the same uncritical center (?) left agenda. With the advantage that on this side of the Atlantic, they do not march, and if they do nobody notices. In late 1970s and early 1980s I participated in several youth meetings – some of the Ecumenical Youth Council in Europe – and I remember how they always spoke “truth to power”. I am not sure who was the power that time. The problem is that the same attitude is present in academic circles which act as opinion makers. That happens specially in social sciences.

    Back to the ultra minority Portuguese Methodist. I have to say I am optimistic when I see, on one hand, the church establishing connections with the global South (Brazil ) and with non progressive American Methodist Conferences, and, on the other hand, the Methodist Millennials becoming surprisingly “more Christians” and “more evangelicals” and less proud of their religious identity as their parents used to be.
    Peter Berger is right: Europe is becoming less secularized and Portugal more pluralistic.

    • Gary Novak

      A sociologist of religion should feel right at home on this blog. Hope to see more posts from you!

      • Helena Vilaça

        Thank you, Gary!

  • Curious Mayhem

    Actually, I believe they are talking to their navels.

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