NEW YORK - Describing George W. Bush as "an explicitly evangelical president" with a "sadly truncated" moral vision, a group of religious leaders is calling on the U.S. president to use his State of the Union message to Congress Monday evening to salvage his legacy by "changing course on the most pressing moral issues of our time".
In a telephone news conference Thursday, Protestant evangelical and Roman Catholic leaders challenged the president to use his speech to announce major changes in his administration's policies on war, torture, climate change, and U.S. and international poverty. The teleconference was held under the aegis of Faith in Public Life, a not-for-profit resource centre for the faith community
The group credited Bush for some of his efforts, including his programmes to address the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Africa, increasing foreign aid, and his domestic Faith-based Initiative. But it was highly critical of many other Bush administration policies, particularly the war in Iraq, providing insufficient resources to help millions of Iraqi refugees, seeming indifference to growing poverty in the U.S., the use of torture, and failure to take a leadership position on global climate change.
The group was particularly critical of the president and his team regarding the use of torture as a tool in the war on terrorism. Rev. David Gushee, president of Evangelicals for Human Rights, said, "In his well-intentioned efforts to protect national security, President Bush and his team over-reached by authorising and employing torture that certainly qualifies as and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment."
Noting that "these decisions were made in secret" following the Sep. 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S., Gushee said that once abuses such as the Abu Ghraib prison scandal were revealed, the courts, the media and public opinion forced Bush into "a kind of tactical retreat." But, he added, Bush "still reserves the right to authorise the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to employ a range of secret 'enhanced interrogation' techniques, including waterboarding."
He criticised the president for threatening to veto pending legislation that would make these practices illegal, and urged him to abandon his objections to using the Army Field Manual as the standard for all interrogations, including those carried out by the CIA.
"It is hard to overstate the devastating effect of this policy on the moral standing of the U.S.," said Gushee, who is the author of the anti-torture statement recently endorsed by the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), which claims a membership of about 4.5 million people.
Sister Anne Curtis of the Institute of the Sisters of Mercy, who recently returned from Iraq, focused on the plight of the estimated four million Iraqis who have either fled to neighbouring countries or been internally displaced by the war. She said U.S. efforts to assist these refugees -- many of whom have become targets for insurgents because they worked for U.S. authorities -- are under-funded and under-resourced.
Talking with refugee families, she said, "I felt a great sense of shame and deep sorrow as a citizen of the U.S.," she told reporters. "President Bush needs to understand the reality" of the refugee situation. He has "a responsibility, a moral obligation, to end the war in Iraq, aid the refugee applicants, and provide for the necessary funding of refugee assistance," she said.
Asked whether any of the contenders for their respective presidential nominations would feel comfortable endorsing the ideas expressed by the group, the speakers declined to name any particular candidate. "The evangelical world has been hurt by its identification with President Bush's immoral choices," said Dr. Ron Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action.
But in response to a question from IPS regarding former Gov. Mike Huckabee's proposal to amend the U.S. Constitution to bring it more in line with Biblical scripture, Sider said, "I would not state it that way. This is not a Christian nation. We should not talk about making the Constitution in line with any religious text." Rather, he said it is appropriate to "talk about moral norms and how people understand these norms," adding that he favours an amendment to the Constitution to ban same-sex marriage.
Poverty in the U.S. was high on the group's agenda. Father Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA, noted that in 2002 his organisation provided 43 percent of its services to the working poor; by 2006, the number had risen to 52 percent.
"More than 36 million people living in poverty in the U.S., which is simply unacceptable. It is a moral and social crisis, because as a country we have the knowledge and the resources to significantly reduce this number," he said. He criticised Congress as well as the president for failing to pass legislation to address the long-term health care needs of poor children.
Global warming was another major concern for the group. Rev. Dr. Paul de Vries, an NAE board member and an original signer of an "Evangelical Climate Initiative" statement, urged Bush to use his Monday night speech to lay out his commitment to "take care of God's creation." He should "praise the scientists, praise the Congress, and lay out a programme to set an example for the rest of the world."
In 2006, the NAE declined to take a stance on global warming, and released a letter stating that "global warming is not a consensus issue". Twenty evangelical leaders, such as James Dobson and Charles Colson, were signatories. But a year later, the 86 NAE members joined a group of prominent scientists in a statement demanding "urgent changes in values, lifestyles and public policies to avert disastrous changes in climate."
The statement cautioned that "millions of people could die in this century because of climate change, most of them our poorest global neighbours."
The group also expressed concern about the current economic downturn triggered by the sub-prime mortgage market meltdown. Rev. de Vries called attention to "the extraordinary levels of deceit" by banks and mortgage companies, and charged that "no one seems to have the guts to say so and conduct a thorough investigation."
He added, "The bank robbers have taken over the banks."
On achieving a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, Rev. Sider said President Bush could have a "huge impact" on current negotiations. "But this is not going to happen unless he invests himself and his credibility" in the effort.
© 2008 Inter Press Service