‘Truth in Advertising? NOW Looks at Campaign Ads,’ The Ethics of War, and America’s Freethinking Tradition

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As information about the prison abuse scandal in Iraq continues to be revealed, America is questioning its leadership, its national identity, and its support for a war that has been characterized as a contest between good and evil. Bill Moyers and philosopher and ethicist Peter Singer grapple with questions of ethics, morality, and responsibility arising from the Abu Ghraib scandal.

While fast-moving events in Iraq dominate the headlines, the battle of presidential election politics at home is raging. NOW goes inside the multi-million dollar ad wars on both sides that are trying to define the characters of the candidates. NOW checks the accuracy of these ads and examines how their potential impact on public opinion may influence the outcome in key battleground states.

Is the separation of church and state at risk? Bill Moyers interviews author Susan Jacoby about why she thinks there is a gathering threat that patriotism and religion have become inseparable in America. She provides historical context for why our founding fathers believed that preserving the sanctity of American secularism is fundamental to democracy and crucial to both religion and government alike.


MOYERS: Welcome to NOW.

A prominent European diplomat this week compared Iraq to a “black hole that is sucking up” the world. He spoke of a spiral of horror from the torture of Iraqi prisoners to the beheading of that young American from Pennsylvania.

Members of Congress were given private screenings of more of those gruesome images the White House and Pentagon hope the public and press never see, for fear of losing even more support for the war.

All this amid new revelations that the CIA treatment of al Qaeda suspects has been so severe that FBI agents have been directed to walk away from the interrogation rooms because of what was happening inside. One thinks of the character in Tom Stoppard’s play ‘Night and Day’ who says, “People do terrible things to each other, but it’s worse in the places where everybody is kept in the dark.”

BRANCACCIO: So what does all this do to America’s moral standing, left circling the drain that is Iraq? President Bush, remember, in a speech last June 26, promised that the U.S. would not use torture on suspects detained in the war on terrorism. Now America is “dancing alone in the world,” writes the NEW YORK TIMES columnist Tom Friedman, himself a cheerleader for the invasion of Iraq a year ago. And the President is left with “no moral influence.” The President’s defenders say it is all the media’s fault. The conservative columnist Dennis Prager said by showing those images, the press is guilty of political bias, profit-seeking, and a “desire to be the center of attention.”

On Capitol Hill, one ranking conservative put it this way:

CONGRESSMAN JAMES INHOFE (R-OK): I’m probably not the only one up at this table that is more outraged by the outrage than we are by the treatment. And I hasten to say, yeah, there are seven bad guys and gals that didn’t do what they should have done. They were misguided, I think maybe even perverted, and the things that they did have to punished. And they’re being punished. But I also have to say when we talk about the treatment of these prisoners, that I would guess that these prisoners wake up every day and thanking Allah that Saddam Hussein is not in charge of these prisons. I am also outraged that we have so many humanitarian do-gooders right now crawling all over these prisons, looking for human rights violations while our troops, our heroes, are fighting and dying.

MOYERS: Watching all this, I decided it’s time to talk to Peter Singer. Peter Singer is one of the world’s most formidable and controversial philosophers. His books on philosophy, ethics and morality have been published in at least 20 languages.

The latest is entitled the PRESIDENT OF GOOD AND EVIL, THE ETHICS OF GEORGE W. BUSH. A native of Australia, Mr. Singer now teaches bioethics and philosophy at Princeton University. Welcome to NOW.

SINGER: Thank you, Bill, great to be with you.

MOYERS: All of us have been holding in our heads simultaneously this week those images, the images of the terrorist beheading the young American from Pennsylvania and the images of what happened in that prison. Is one of those atrocities more reprehensible than the other?

SINGER: Well, I mean, obviously killing someone is more reprehensible than sexually humiliating them. That’s true. But, you know, we don’t know yet everything that’s happened in Abu Ghraib. And there are reports of people who died in suspicious circumstances from blunt injuries with bruises and so on. So, it may actually be that American soldiers did kill people in that prison. And while, you know, you might say there are still differences between that and the beheading — the differences start to become gray rather than black and white.

MOYERS: Let me read you some conservative Web site this morning. This is by a man who has been a close advisor to George W. Bush. He says, quote, “The photo of an Iraqi man with a leash around his neck showed shameful perversity. But at least the man still had a neck. The United States during the initial phase of the Iraq war used “smart bombs” in an attempt to minimize civilian casualties. Compare that to Islamic fascists sewing off Nick Berg’s head.”

SINGER: I wish it were true that the United States had really made a serious attempt to minimize civilian casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq. But I think there were many cases where the United States did kill civilians in a way that doesn’t show great care for their lives. For example, in Afghanistan, a village was bombed.

And civilians were killed, innocent, you know, peasant villagers. And when asked why that village was bombed, the Pentagon said, “Well, there was a Taliban truck in that village. And that’s a legitimate target.” Now I don’t think destroying one Taliban truck is enough reason to justify killing innocent Afghans.

MOYERS: Are there any circumstances under which you could morally justify that if you’re trying to save a lot of lives you have to accept the loss of some lives?

SINGER: If you’re really sure that it’s absolutely the only way to save a lot of lives. But I don’t think destroying a Taliban truck is so important. And there are other things that happened in Iraq.

For example, there was a civilian neighborhood in Basra that was bombed, a residential neighborhood in attempt to kill “Chemical Ali” this Iraqi general who was responsible for the use of chemical weapons many years earlier. And that killed, for example, wiped out this whole family more or less, the Hamoodi family, a family of 14. And ten were killed from an infant to a grandmother. They were all killed.

Now, it didn’t kill Chemical Ali. He was arrested alive and well four months later. Even if it had killed him would that have been justified? You know, it was not really a vital military objective. It was just trying to get this bad person. Now, you can’t justify what we’re doing by saying someone else is doing something bad, you know. Weren’t we taught in kindergarten that two wrongs don’t make a right? Isn’t that still the case?

MOYERS: You heard Senator Inhofe say that he’s more outraged by the outrage than he is by anything else.

SINGER: Yes, and he was saying, “Well, you know, these people thank Allah that Saddam is not in charge of this prison.” So, is that what we’re comparing ourselves to as long as the way we run the prison is a little bit better than the way Saddam ran the prison? Is that good enough for America?

MOYERS: You said something to one of my colleagues earlier that intrigues me. You said a President with a more realistic, less faith-based view of America, might have seen the risk that American guards were likely to abuse Iraqi prisoners under their control, and taken stronger measures to prevent it. What does a faith-based view of America have to do with how those prisoners were treated in Iraq?

SINGER: Well, I think that the President has, you know, just as he has this religious faith, that he knows the difference between good and evil, so he has this faith that Americans are good. Alright? And he doesn’t really see Americans in a objective and realistic way, where he can understand that if you put people in charge of prisoners, there is always the potential for abuse.

And we know that. You know? There have been many studies that have shown that. That it —

MOYERS: It happens all the time in American prisons.

SINGER: Well, it certainly happens, in fact, it happened in American prisons when President Bush was governor of Texas, right? The Texas prisons were under a federal court order because of abuses in those prisons. So, he should have known it from that alone.

And yet, I think because he has this view that just says, “Americans are good, decent people,” he’s unrealistic in thinking about what’s likely to happen, if you put people in charge of foreigners. You tell them that they’re suspected terrorists. We tell them that they have useful information that we can get out of them, you know? I think he should have known, and would have known without this faith-based view of America that there was a real risk that something like these abuses would occur.

MOYERS: Doesn’t his war on terror have a moral legitimacy? We were attacked. The United States was attacked, if somebody’s trying to kill you don’t you have the right to try to kill that person before he gets to it first?

SINGER: Absolutely, you do. But you don’t have the right to kill other people who are not attacking you or not connected with that attack on you.

MOYERS: So, the war on terror should have been more—

SINGER: It should have been much more focused I think. Yes, it should have been more like a police operation, an attempt to get the people who really were involved with it instead of being something much broader. And everyone really agrees that there’s no evidence linking Saddam with the 9-11 plot.

MOYERS: Even the administration has—

SINGER: Even the administration has accepted that. So, you know, this is not part of the war on terror.

MOYERS: Who is accountable for what those soldiers did in that prison?

SINGER: Well, I think that the rule is that the chain of command goes up to those who are responsible for the running of the prisons and for insuring that there’s proper discipline in the prisons. And I think ultimately, the responsibility goes to the Commander in Chief, in other words to the President for not having set the right tone as to how American soldiers should conduct themselves.

For example, he said in the State of the Union Address, which was watched by tens of millions of Americans and Congress, that the United States has assassinated people who are its enemies. He boasted of that. He said it was you know, like some — said something like, “Put it this way, they’re no longer a problem to us.” In other words, he boasted of assassinations which are outside any rule of law or due process.

And I think he thereby gave the idea that, you know, once we suspect people are our enemies, we are above the law. We can go after them. And we can kill them.

And it’s not surprising then that people at a lower level think, “Oh, well these people are terrorists too. They’re our enemies. So, you know, we can also go above the law.”

MOYERS: So, what could he do now to try to make things right? What would you like to see the President do?

SINGER: Well, I would like to see the President admit some responsibility, admit that he’s made a wrong turning. You remember that press conference a month or so ago where he was asked what his worst mistake was. And the question completely, you know, flummoxed him. He couldn’t think of anything.

I would like him to say— to admit that he made a mistake in not making it crystal clear to the armed forces that these operations had to respect the lives and dignity and rights of Iraqis all the way down even if they were suspects in prison. So, he should admit that mistake. And I think he should ask Rumsfeld to resign.

I think that’s the only way in which you can show the people of the world that we take this seriously as a reflection on the way in which the prisons were run and not this idea that it’s just these few who have let us down and that Americans are all wonderful. I mean, the world just doesn’t swallow that one.

MOYERS: For an elected official to say, “I am responsible,” does that go far enough morally?

SINGER: Well, I mean, it depends on the political system, right? If this were a parliamentary system, I think you would expect the President in charge to resign. In a presidential system, that’s obviously much more unusual. So I’m not really expecting the President to resign on this occasion.

But it may well be that the President should consider not running again. Because, you know, that’s what Lyndon Johnson did when he felt the Vietnam War had got to this state where he was becoming perhaps a polarizing force and a burden on trying to get out of this terrible situation. And maybe President Bush could recognize that a new President who would have a better chance of achieving peace and being able to work with our opponents in Iraq than he himself could have.

MOYERS: A lot of conservatives are saying it right now that what happened with the beheading of the young man from Pennsylvania just shows the kind of people the United States is up against. It really does justify the President’s concerns about terrorists and Iraq irrespective of weapons of mass destruction and the al Qaeda connection.

SINGER: I think we always knew that there are terrible people in the world who will do awful things. But the question is what’s the best way to respond to them. I think the best way to respond is to try to isolate them and get the vast majority of decent people, Islamic or Christian or whatever they might be on our side.

And attacking a country is a sure way to drive the moderates into the ranks of the extremists. Because it unites the country against the invader. And that seems to be what we’ve done.

MOYERS: There are those who say that Americans are safer because of the invasion of Iraq.

SINGER: I don’t particularly feel any safer. And I don’t think that there’s any evidence that that’s true. On the contrary, I think that in the long term, the fact that we’ve stirred up this hatred against us is probably an excellent recruiting tool for Al-Qaeda. And we may well be less safe.

MOYERS: Your book is especially compelling. Because it’s not just visceral Bush bashing. I mean, you’re in places, generous to the President. You write that, “President Bush is America’s most prominent moralist.” What exactly do you mean by that?

SINGER: I mean that he’s the most prominent person who talks about right and wrong, good and evil. And our— I think in contrast perhaps to President Clinton, he puts that up front all the time. And he’s trying to say, you know, morality is important.

It’s important to act justly. It’s important to do what’s the right thing. And I applaud that. I mean, I agree with the President that morality is important. That’s why I’ve spent my life teaching it, and thinking about it, and writing about it.

And I agree with him, too, that it’s not just a matter of you know, taste, or subjective judgment. That we really can think about this. We can educate our children in ideas about ethics, and right and wrong. So, I give him credit for that.

MOYERS: You say that the President came to office, powered by moral rhetoric, to a degree unusual in politics. He said he wanted to restore honor, and compassion to the White House, to reinvigorate the moral stature of our political culture. And yet, at the end of this book, you don’t give him very high marks for doing that.

SINGER: No. Because I think he has this very black and white view of ethics. And in fact, it’s a view which I describe as adolescent. And that might just seem a term of abuse.

But I don’t mean it as a term of abuse. I’m referring to Lawrence Kohlberg, the Harvard moral psychologist, who has made a great study of moral development, who talked about people moving from one stage of moral growth to another.

And Bush seems to be still in the stage that Kohlberg describes as, “The Conventional Stage,” where you have moral rules. And you adhere to those rules. But you don’t really think about the point of the rules, and about the larger claims of human welfare. And I give some examples in the book, where I think that Bush is kind of stuck at this level of just saying, “Well, if I don’t tell a lie, that means if I don’t exactly say something that is false, then what I’ve done is okay. I haven’t broken the moral rule.”

And therefore, he doesn’t accept responsibility for things that are not technically lies. Like you know, we have learnt that Saddam has been trying to buy Uranium in Africa. Even though that was clearly misleading, and misled people to think that it was true. So, you know, I think that he has this notion of ethics, which doesn’t really see the larger picture of the effect of what he is doing.

MOYERS: Is it possible not to tell a lie, and live one?

SINGER: That would be one way of putting it, you see? Yes. I think that’s an excellent way of putting it. But not in terms of the President’s ethics, I believe.

I mean, I think he thinks that as long as I don’t say something that’s literally untrue, I’ve not told a lie. And from reports of those who work with him, you know that’s what he tries to do.

MOYERS: When I became press secretary many years ago, while you were a young man, my father sent me a telegraph that said, “Tell the truth, if you can. But if you can’t tell the truth, don’t tell a lie.”

SINGER: Well, that’s obviously true. Someone who’s in a press secretary position, a good way of putting it, right? But I would like to go further.

And I’d like to say “Be aware of what people will understand from what you say, or don’t say. It’s not just a matter of whether your words are literally a lie. But what impression are you making? And what will people take home from what you’ve said? And if what they take home is a false impression, particularly on a matter as important as whether this nation should go to war, then I think that that’s a very serious, moral failing, even if you’ve not literally told a lie.”

MOYERS: People, critics say, “Peter Singer is a brilliant theorist of the abstract ideals of ethics and morality. But he’s totally unaware of how politics works in this country.” So, my question is: is it possible to be morally consistent, and politically viable in a pluralistic society like this?

SINGER: Well, obviously politics forces you into difficult positions. And you would probably know a lot more about this than I would, Bill. But I think it’s possible to do a lot better than George Bush has. I mean, what would you think, sir, if I suggested that Jimmy Carter did hold a morally consistent line? Now of course, I know he didn’t—

MOYERS: But he was not politically viable.

SINGER: Well no, but he was politically viable enough to serve four years as President, right?

MOYERS: Right.

SINGER: I mean, he got there. And he served a term. And I think, perhaps that if he had not had the misfortune of the Iranian Hostage Affair, he could have been re-elected.

I think that it is possible to be a person of good moral character, and be reasonably consistent in upholding your moral ideas. And still get to the top in politics.

MOYERS: Given where we are this weekend, what is the moral challenge facing America now in Iraq?

SINGER: I think the moral challenge is how to end the occupation as rapidly as possible, in a way that does not simply lead to civil war. Because that’s clearly staring us in the face here.

MOYERS: The book is THE PRESIDENT OF GOOD AND EVIL. THE ETHICS OF GEORGE W. BUSH by Peter Singer. Thank you very much for joining us on NOW.

SINGER: Thank you, Bill. It’s been great talking to you.

ANNOUNCER: There’s more to come on NOW. Has God become a problem in politics?

JACOBY: Religion is well protected from government in this country now as it always has been. Where we’re falling down during the past 30 years is in the protection of government from religion.

ANNOUNCER: Susan Jacoby and the case for secular government.

BRANCACCIO: For those of you who live in media markets that have been saturated with political ads — and you know who you are — you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

You probably know that political interest groups have been pouring tens of millions of dollars into the presidential campaign.

Yesterday, the Federal Election Commission, in its most important vote of the year, decided not to put any new limits on how that money is spent… at least for the time being. That could open the floodgates. Already, there’s talk of the first billion dollar campaign.

The point of all these ads is to define your opponent before he can define himself. Our report was produced by Peter Meryash.

The airwaves are running thick with these images in the 20 states that President Bush or Senator John Kerry believe could go either way come Election Day. If you don’t happen to live in a battleground state, stay with us: these political ads are shaping views even as we speak on who should hold power in America.

Already, campaign advertising numbers in the Bush-Kerry battle are startling. Senator Kerry recently announced a $25 million three-week ad blitz—in addition to the $17 million he’s already spent. And the President has burned through an estimated $60 million to date.

JACKSON: It’s been pretty negative and not always very accurate.

BRANCACCIO: Brooks Jackson is worried voters are being misled. He’s covered money and politics for many years as a reporter at both THE WALL STREET JOURNAL and then at CNN. Now, he monitors presidential campaign advertising at the Annenberg Public Policy Center.

JACKSON: If you’re a voter and the only information you get is from television ads run by the candidates and their allied groups you’re not gonna get a very accurate impression of either candidate.

BRANCACCIO: For example—

BUSH AD: Some people have wacky ideas. Like taxing gasoline more so people drive less. That’s John Kerry. He supported a 50 cent a gallon gas tax. If Kerry’s tax increase were law, the average family would pay $657 more a year.

JACKSON: There’s no such plan and they know it. There’s no evidence aside from a couple of newspaper clips from ten years ago that he ever did, even ten years ago support a $0.50 a gallon gas tax. So whatever support he had for it back then was lukewarm at best and nonexistent today.

Yet the Bush ads refer to Kerry’s plan to raise taxes $0.50 a gallon.

BRANCACCIO: How much impact do ads like this have? A recent poll by the Annenberg Center found that almost half of those surveyed in the battleground states believe Senator Kerry wants to raise gasoline taxes by 50 cents a gallon.

But misleading ads can come from both sides of the political aisle.

KERRY AD: While jobs are leaving our country in record numbers, George Bush says sending jobs overseas makes sense for America.

JACKSON: George Bush never said that. “Well,” say the Kerry people, “Well, he signed a report that said that.” Well, no, he didn’t.

He signed the Economic Report of the President which was bound together with another volume in which his chief economist said it makes sense to send jobs overseas as part of fair trade. It’s not very good politics, but to put those words in George Bush’s mouth when he never said them maybe never even read them is just wrong.

BRANCACCIO: Wrong, but even so the ad appears to have hit home. That Annenberg survey found almost two thirds of those asked believe President Bush favors sending American jobs overseas.

CLYMER: It’s more untruthful earlier than any election I’ve ever noticed.

BRANCACCIO: Adam Clymer covered politics for the NEW YORK TIMES for 26 years. He now works with Brooks Jackson.

CLYMER: You know it clutters the landscape. It increases the basic cynicism of the American voter who think that all of these guys are for bad things.

And the campaigns don’t spend very much time talking about the things that might appeal to people about what they stand for. And they talk at great length about these horrible fantasies about the other guy.

BRANCACCIO: Most of the recent ads from both sides have been geared to defining Kerry. The thinking goes that after the 2000 campaign and 3.5 years in office, what voter isn’t already familiar with the President? But John Kerry’s image is still up for grabs.

So the 30-second efforts to sculpt that image take to the air, both the negative and the positive. And both can mislead.

KERRY AD: He broke with his own party to support a new balanced budget. Then in the 1990’s, cast a decisive vote that created 20 million new jobs.

JACKSON: I think Kerry goes a little too far when he says his vote created 20 million new jobs.

BRANCACCIO: Kerry did vote in favor of President Clinton’s economic package. But it was Vice President Gore who broke a 50-50 tie with a “decisive” vote. And as for those new jobs—

JACKSON: By the time Clinton had left office there were another 20 million plus jobs that had been added to the economy. But even Bill Clinton never claimed total credit for his own economic package.

BRANCACCIO: As for the Bush campaign ads, they’ve targeted Kerry primarily in two major areas: taxes and defense.

BUSH AD: John Kerry has repeatedly opposed weapons vital to winning the war on terror: Bradley Fighting Vehicles, Patriot Missiles, B-2 Stealth Bombers, F-18 Fighter Jets and more. Kerry even voted against body armor for our troops on the front line in the war on terror.

BRANCACCIO: But Jackson says Kerry never cast individual votes against Bradley fighting vehicles, Patriot missiles, or the other weapons.

JACKSON: That list of weapons that Kerry voted against? For the most part that’s based on three years when John Kerry voted against the entire Pentagon budget.

BRANCACCIO: Kerry cast those votes back after the end of the Cold War, when Senators in both parties were trying to slim down the Pentagon.

JACKSON: It’s really unfair and misleading to characterize a vote against the entire Pentagon budget is a vote against a specific weapon system. It also ignores the fact that in 16 other years Kerry voted for the Pentagon budget.

BRANCACCIO: And as far as the claim that Senator Kerry did not support body armor for the troops —

JACKSON: There was never any such vote. What there was was a vote on an $87 billion emergency supplemental appropriation for Afghanistan and Iraq, reconstruction, mostly for military operations. And 1/3 of one percent of the money in that bill was in fact for high tech ceramic plate body armor for troops that didn’t have it.

It’s really misleading to say he voted against body armor when really what he voted against was a much bigger package than just that.

BRANCACCIO: Misleading, inaccurate, but effective.

CLYMER: We find, you know, views of Kerry steadily went down substantially in those States where Bush was advertising heavily.

BRANCACCIO: Among potential voters in the battle-ground states where Bush’s ads have saturated the airwaves, Clymer found that the percentage of people who had unfavorable opinions of Kerry went from 28 percent in early March to 36 percent by early May.

CLYMER: The stuff, you know, it works. If it didn’t work they wouldn’t be spending the money on it. They might resort to the old-fashioned cheaper way of just paying people to vote for the right guy. They’d spend a lot less if they, you know, if they paid 50 bucks to every undecided voter.

BRANCACCIO: Taking to the airwaves to smear your opponent is a classic campaign strategy. Remember 1988?

GEORGE H.W. BUSH AD [1988]: Dukakis opposed the Stealth Bomber and a ground emergency warning system against nuclear attack. He even criticized our rescue mission to Grenada and our strike on Libya. And now he wants to be our Commander-in-Chief. America can’t afford that risk.

BRANCACCIO: Far less memorable but no less devastating was Bill Clinton’s barrage of attacks on Bob Dole in 1996.

JACKSON: In my judgment, Bob Dole lost the election before he ever got the nomination. Because Clinton poured $50 million worth of negative ads on him between the time he sewed up the nomination and the time he formally accepted it at the convention.

BRANCACCIO: For the most part, Senator Kerry has recently avoided running negative ads, at least those he pays for himself.

JACKSON: He doesn’t have to be negative because he’s got groups like MoveOn.org and the Media Fund spending tens of millions of dollars, Democratic groups, bashing Bush unmercifully on Iraq, on weapons of mass destruction, on sending jobs overseas and some pretty rough stuff. So, as I say it’s kind of a one-two punch. Kerry gets to be positive. He leaves the rough stuff to allied Democratic groups.

BRANCACCIO: Those allied groups have become the new weapons of choice in the political ad wars. Known as 527 organizations, they raise as much money as they want, and they’ve grown dramatically since campaign finance reform shut off the really big giant corporate and private donations to the political parties.

The 527s are pulling no punches in the ads they finance with their war chests. The one rule: they can’t come right out and say ‘vote for or against a candidate.’

Here’s an ad from a progressive group supporting Kerry, MoveOn.org.

MOVEON.ORG AD: In his State of the Union speech, here’s what George Bush should say about his new Medicare bill:

BUSH IMITATOR (VOICEOVER): My fellow Americans. My Medicare bill has real drug benefits—but not for you. For my contributors at the big drug companies…

BRANCACCIO: The 527s will be a major factor in this year’s race. It’s estimated they could spend well over $100 million in the coming months.

Starting this weekend, President Bush will be getting some of that help from the conservative Club for Growth. It has announced its own $10 million campaign. The new ad is strongly pro-Bush, rewinding to a time of perceived strength for the President.

CLUB FOR GROWTH AD: Our enemies want to destroy America’s freedoms. President Bush is fighting terrorism to save lives and protect liberty. George W. Bush: the vision to promote freedom and the courage to defend it.

BRANCACCIO: The group says it is also planning anti-Kerry ads.

In this political season whether political ads are warm and fuzzy or downright dishonest, paid for by the candidates or their supposedly unaffiliated allies, the bottom line is “Let the viewer beware.”

TV commercials for products like cars, or laundry detergent, are regulated by the government. They have to be true or the advertiser can be hauled into court. But with political ads, the government protects the right to make claims that are true, untrue, or totally made up.

JACKSON: In fact, politicians have a constitutional right to lie just as much as they want in their ads and voters ought to be aware of that.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Next week on NOW: Around 100,000 women behind bars. When they’re released, many are drawn back into a life of drug use and crime, but there is another way.

GREENHOPE PARTICIPANT: I have a lot of guilt and shame. So no matter how many times I talk about it, it doesn’t put my kids before me.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: A place where they can learn how to live and work. A place of second chances.

GREENHOPE PARTICIPANT: You have to say, “okay, this happened and I will move on now.”


And, Connect to NOW online at pbs.org.

Tell us what you think. How can America repair its image abroad?

Check out what is true and what is not in the latest crop of campaign ads.

Read about America’s tradition of secular government.

Connect to NOW at pbs.org.

MOYERS: As we saw, television is everywhere in politics today. So is religion. Just today, George Bush used his commencement address at a Lutheran college near Milwaukee to promote his faith-based initiatives. And at every campaign stop it seems as if God is part of the advance team.

A week ago President Bush campaigned through the Midwest on themes of “faith and freedom.” And then made sure he showed up on that big Christian television special in celebration of public prayer. It’s called reaching out to your core constituents.

BUSH: Today in our nation’s capitol and around the country we pause to acknowledge our reliance on almighty God.

MOYERS: John Kerry has his eye on the faithful, too. Especially black churches that are critical for a Democratic candidate. Kerry, a Catholic, has been at odds with the hierarchy of his own faith. Vatican officials have said politicians who don’t follow church doctrine on abortion should not receive communion. That was aimed right at Kerry.

KERRY: Abortion should be rare, but it should be safe and legal and government should stay out of the bedrooms of Americans!

MOYERS: In New Jersey, the Archbishop of Newark has challenged the state’s democratic Governor James McGreevey. In a statement to the church newspaper, Archbishop John J. Myers told the states’ pro-choice politicians that it would be dishonest for them to receive communion.

MCGREEVEY: The actions today of the archbishop, from my perspective are unfortunate.

MOYERS: Michael Sheridan, The catholic Bishop of Colorado Springs went even farther. His pastoral letter this month banned not only pro-choice politicians but also any Catholics who vote for them from receiving communion “until they have recanted their positions and been reconciled with God—”

It’s the latest round in the long-running conflict over religion in the public square. What Thomas Jefferson once called “a wall of separation between church and state” has become more and more porous as the Religious Right has rebelled against what they call secular humanism.

The Religious Right rallied behind Alabama’s chief judge Roy Moore when he refused to obey a higher court’s order to remove the 10 commandments from the state Supreme Court building. Moore was removed from office and is now out rousing conservative Christians to get out the vote in November.

For his part, President Bush says he wants more judges on the Supreme Court like Justice Antonin Scalia, who speaks often and favorably of religion’s role in public life. In a speech last year he remarked, “We’ve said in our opinions that the government may neither favor nor disfavor… religion in general. Never mind that this is contrary to our whole tradition—”

And just this week, the powerful radio preacher, James Dobson of Focus on the Family announced that he too is starting a political organization to involve Christians in politics.

His wife chaired the national prayer day and both are enthusiastic about George W. Bush.

DOBSON: We appreciate the fact that we have a president who is not ashamed of his faith.

MOYERS: Susan Jacoby has a problem with all this talk about God in politics.

She comes from a long American tradition of freethinkers and that’s the title of her new book, her fifth. She’s director of the Center for Inquiry, an organization that works to promote science and reason.

We met the other day for a conversation about religion and politics.

You express a deep concern and fear that since 9/11 patriotism and religion have become inseparable in this country. Why is that of alarm to you?

JACOBY: It’s of alarm first of all because it’s such a very dangerous thing when patriotism and religion become equated. So often the kind of religion which is melded with patriotism and not only in America — we see the horrifying implications of it throughout history— becomes nationalism and militarism and a complete intolerance for any other point of view. I think it’s dangerous to— the God is on our side thing is extremely dangerous. And I’d like to go back to something to the Civil War.


JACOBY: Lincoln spoke a lot about God. But in a somewhat different way. His second inaugural address which is so famous and in many occasions before that he pointed out the real problem in saying that you consult God for your instructions about how to conduct war or any form of policy.

Which is that, “Northerners and southerners prayed to the same god,” he said. But the northern God by that point said, “Slavery was bad. You must go to war to eliminate it.” And the southern God who spoke to southerners at that time said, “The Bible supports slavery. God and slavery are one.”

Isn’t that a perfect example of the danger of looking to the divine to solve human problems? People’s God speaks to them in different voices. The Civil War is the perfect example of it.

MOYERS: Abraham Lincoln belonged to no church. He refused in fact to join a church during his first campaign even though his political advisors urged him to do so because it would help his election.

Do you think Abraham Lincoln could be elected president today?

JACOBY: No. I don’t think he would be nominated today. I don’t think anyone who doesn’t belong— I don’t think an atheist who called himself an atheist could be nominated. But I also think it would be quite impossible — anyone who didn’t belong to a church would be immediately suspect today.

Look what happens even when Howard Dean was tarred with the dreaded S-word for secular and the issue of whether he was too secular a person to be nominated was raised. Instead of saying, which I would like to see a candidate say, instead of saying my religious beliefs are my own. Which Jefferson and Washington and Madison and the early president said and Lincoln too. Instead of saying my religious beliefs are my own but I believe, “Yes in secular government.” And in an absolutely separation of church and state.

He suddenly discovered, “Well I pray ever day. And I’m trying to become more comfortable” he said “with discussing my religion in public.” Why should we be expecting a candidate to be, quote, “comfortable with discussing his religion in public?”

MOYERS: Why should you be so concerned? You’re free to think as you think, to believe as you believe, to be the atheist you are. No one is trying to take that away from you or dampen your belief system, are they? Is that—

JACOBY: Well, it—

MOYERS: Aren’t you protected by the Constitution and the First Amendment?

JACOBY: I am protected. I can believe what I want. But there is another issue. It’s not merely one of protection of individual belief. It’s also the other side of it, the side of it that’s the constitutional, the no religious tests. Supreme power to “We the people.” Which is the protection of government from religion.

And that’s where I think religion is well protected from government in this country now as it always has been. Where we’re falling down as a result of developments and the great rise of the religious right during the past 30 years is in the protection of government from religion.

MOYERS: What leads you to conclude that?

JACOBY: A myriad of actions on every front. The open espousal of faith based programs, the appointment of judges who have expressed open contempt for separation of church and state. Judge Pryor the former Alabama Attorney General who was appointed by Bush when Congress was in recess to bypass the Senate confirmation process.

I just came across a speech he made in defense at a rally in favor of Judge Moore. He of the two-ton Ten Commandments monument. And Judge Prior said— he said in this speech, he said, “Now is the time for all Christians, Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants to take back our country and our courts.”

I think that the appointment of such a judge which President Bush went out of his way to do. I think that statement should disqualify anyone for a federal judgeship. No federal judge should be saying, “Now is the time for Christians to take back our country and our courts.”

Our country and our courts were never Christians. They never were Christian. They aren’t Christians to take back because they were never intended to be Christian. So the kinds of judges that President Bush has appointed and would continue to appoint certainly if he’s reelected. Are judges who have contempt for separation of church and state.

And Bush has also meant in many other government programsm, for instance, the towing of the line on abortion. Bush’s decision on stem cell research which most leading scientists believe has already really hampered American research. Because they regard research on embryos as a form of abortion.

It is having personal religious faith, his, determine public policy in a way that no president has ever done before.

MOYERS: How do you—

JACOBY: Including Ronald Reagan.

MOYERS: Who was a man of—

JACOBY: Who was conservative but not nearly as conservative on religious issues.

MOYERS: Well the father of modern conservatism, Barry Goldwater was very much opposed.

JACOBY: Very much opposed to it. He made a speech which I think I can’t even quote on public television on the floor of the Senate in 1980 basically saying, “If one more blankety-blank preacher tries to tell me how I should vote and if God is going to be— to strike me dead if I don’t vote this way I’ve had enough of it.” I’m putting this in more polite language than Barry. You can say anything on the floor of the Senate.

MOYERS: And they do. And then they—

JACOBY: And they had a Federal Communications Commission doesn’t censure it.

MOYERS: And then they erase it the next day on the Congressional Record. How do you explain that I’m going to get a lot of vitriolic mail because of what you’re saying on this show?

JACOBY: I think certainly, certainly judging from my email, people send me email praising what I have to say and denigrating what I have to say. The praise is always more measured than the denigration which of course tells me I’m going to hell. And it’s really in a rage that I don’t share their point of view and the point of view is being presented. Even though their point of view is being presented on hundreds of radio shows—

MOYERS: Oh yeah.

JACOBY: —even as we speak right now. It’s not as though the point of view of the Christian right is not well presented. We do not dominate. We secularists do not dominate the public square.

I think one of the brilliant successes of the right wing in which the press has been a sort of ignorant collaborator is appropriating the word religion.

What do we mean when we say that Americans are religious?

Those Catholics for instance who disagree with their church’s teachings say on abortion and on gay rights they’re just a different kind of Catholic from those who share the Pope’s views. Just as Evangelical Baptists like Jimmy Carter, who slapped at the fundamentalist Georgia State Superintendent of Schools who wanted to remove the word evolution in the year 2004 from their biology textbooks. He’s as much a devout, religious person as is George W. Bush. But there are different kinds of religion. So religious doesn’t mean, doesn’t mean you have to follow the kind of religion which is being espoused by our government today.

MOYERS: You write in praise of secularism. What exactly are you praising?

JACOBY: I’m praising a belief system which particularly in relation to public affairs, but I have to say also in relation to personal conduct, says we have an obligation to create a decent society, to behave decently to one another, not because we’re afraid that we’re going to hell of we’re hopeful that we’re going to heaven. But because this is what it means to be human. This is what we owe each other as decent human beings. Not because we think that some divinity is going to punish us if we’re not good.

And I think the idea that the people have to have religion and that governments have to have religion to be good, this is what I detest. And I think that’s the difference and I think, you know, someone once asked me, “Well if you don’t believe in God, what’s to stop you from killing someone?” No one had ever asked me that before.

I said, “Well, honestly, it never occurred to me to kill anyone.” And not because I think God is going to punish me or even because I think I’m going to go to jail. I don’t want to.

MOYERS: There are these people who say that we can’t derive a moral standard without reference to an absolute standard. And my question then is, “Where does one draw, who is not a believer in an absolute or transcendental God, where does one draw one’s ethical imperatives?

JACOBY: Out of respect for common humanity. Out of respect for our own humanity. Out of respect for what it means to have evolved into who we are over the years. Out of, good heavens, the knowledge that the rights we want for ourselves we have to grant to others.

Robert Ingersoll put it beautifully. Someone a reporter asked him that same question in the 1870s. He said, “Secularism teaches us to be good here and now. I know of nothing better than good. Secularism teaches us to be just here and now. I know of nothing juster than just.”

I feel that way. But justice on Earth doesn’t require a thought of heaven. And I also feel that we can only resolve our social conflicts, our political conflicts by reference to ourselves.

MOYERS: And you mean by— in yourselves. You mean in the sanctioned system we have set up to arrive at some resolution of our differences?


MOYERS: The courts of politics.

JACOBY: Yes. And we will never do it by appealing to God because God is such a different thing to so many different people.

MOYERS: You call the book FREETHINKERS. Tell our audience why that title?

JACOBY: Freethinker, a great word. It first appears at the end of the 17th century. And what it meant was someone who opposed orthodox religion, ecclesiastical hierarchy. Freethinkers. And it grew into a real social movement in the next two centuries.

Freethinkers were not necessarily atheists or agnostics although they were always called that. Isn’t it funny that religious fanatics always all anyone whose religion is different from theirs an atheist.

MOYERS: And who are your heroes of the free thinking movement?

JACOBY: Thomas Paine. Paine because he put in popular language religious doubt. He also wasn’t an atheist although he was always called that.

MOYERS: Theodore Roosevelt called Tom Paine a filthy little atheist.

JACOBY: He did. And yet Paine even says that he believes in God. What he hates are church hierarchies. He hates the authority of ministers. He hates the authority of priests.

He hates the authority of bishops. He certainly hated the authority of the Pope. All established church hierarchies he hated. And that side of free thought is constant whether they believe in God or not. And Baptists. Speaking of Baptists, as you’re a Baptist.

Another thing that would surprise at least a lot of the conservative wing of Baptists today is that Baptists were, along with freethinkers, they united to ratify the Constitution as it was and earlier to write Virginia’s Religious Freedom Act which is the first state to totally separate Church and State. And they did that of course then because they were a minority religion. And they deeply believed that religion was no business of government at all.

They united with freethinkers who were more concerned that government not be the business of religion. But here were compromise, here were flexible people. They came to the same position which is Church and State should be completely separate from different perspectives.

MOYERS: When you use the word, the phrase, “the separation of Church and State,” what do you think of?

JACOBY: I think of it as a great and mighty and nourishing river. That’s what I think of it as, a river divides just as a wall. But it divides in a life giving way. And I think of it—

MOYERS: How so?

JACOBY: And I think of it that way because it nourishes, it has nourished both religion and government. Certainly the plethora of religions we have, the vitality of religious life is due to the fact that the government was never able to interfere with religion. Not really of course there are many exceptions but there was always this constitution saying no you can’t do it. And certainly government, our government, a secular government is the great gift we gave to the world at a time when it didn’t have it.

And seeing high government officials including the President and including Justice Scalia, including a lot of other people just naming the two top names very influential denying these life giving properties of separation of church and state. Saying it’s not even true, ignoring the fact that the Constitution specifically grants authority to we the people. And pretending that our government was founded as a Christian government.

Do you know — I don’t mention this in the book — but in 1797 the Barbary Pirates were attacking American ships. And so, you know, President John Adams and signed in the Senate and the House unanimously signed a treaty that was arranged, the Treaty of Tripoli. And they were of course Muslims at the time in Tripoli. And one of the provisions of this treaty which was published in American newspapers and again ratified with no comment in the Senate, in the House and signed by President Adams, was that the United States is in no way a Christian nation is the exact statement.

Was in no way founded as a Christian nation. Therefore we have nothing. I’m paraphrasing now. We have nothing against they called the Muselmen then. They were reassuring the Barbary states that America, which was not founded as a Christian country, as the document states, was not going to interfere with their religious practices.

And this provision occasioned basically no comment. If the separation of church and state was not taken for granted even that early in the Republic by both the religious and the nonreligious in America why imagine the fight we would have over some agreement. You know let’s say we signed a test ban treaty today and it said something like, “We are not a Christian nation?”

MOYERS: This woman has a bee in her bonnet as we used to say down south. What is it that motivated you to write this book?

JACOBY: I do have a bee in my bonnet as you so nicely put it. I actually, This book started with another book. Several years ago I wrote a memoir titled HALF-JEW and it was really about my father who pretended he wasn’t a Jew and was a Roman Catholic convert his whole life.

And it started me thinking I would speak in temples. And they would ask me you know, “What are you now? Wanting to hear that I had returned to the Judaism of my father’s forbears, which he of course never knew either.

And I would say in a way unhappily because I knew these nice people who had come to temples to listen to me would be disappointed. I would say I’m an atheist. And there would be a gasp of surprise.

And someone said in one audience, “You mean you believe in nothing.” And I started thinking about that. I said, “Well no. I don’t believe in nothing.” And I started thinking about that. Well, no. I don’t believe in nothing. There are a lot of things I believe in. I believe that our obligation is to make life better because it’s our obligation to each other as human beings. Not in relation to eternal rewards and infernal punishments.

And then I started thinking, “This is what a lot of the founders of this country believed.” And why is the secular tradition in America which as powerful as the religious tradition. Why is it so denigrated today? Why has it been so lost at least in this period of our history? That really started my writing this book.

MOYERS: The book is FREETHINKERS, A HISTORY OF AMERICAN SECULARISM, the author is Susan Jacoby. Thank you very much for being with us on NOW.

JACOBY: Thank you. It’s really been a pleasure.

BRANCACCIO: That’s it for NOW. Bill Moyers and I will be back next week. I’m David Brancaccio. Thanks for joining us.

This transcript was entered on August 19, 2015.

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