Does Romney’s Religion Condone Torture? [UPDATED]

Nobody asked Governor Mitt Romney or President Barack Obama about torture during Monday night’s “foreign policy debate”—but someone should have.

Because recently disclosed Romney campaign documents are raising new questions about the candidate’s position, and the recent appointment of a Spokane, Washington LDS bishop who in his professional life as a psychologist pioneered so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” after 9/11 has raised new questions about whether Mormonism condones torture.

Washington newspapers are reporting that Bruce Jessen was called and “sustained” (or approved) to serve as bishop by his Spokane-area congregation in mid-October. [UPDATE:  Sources have confirmed that Jessen stepped down from the position last Sunday.]

In late 2001, Jessen and James Mitchell (both clinical psychologists with no previous interrogation or intelligence training; both members of the LDS Church) were contracted by the CIA to develop “enhanced interrogation techniques” and to train interrogators during what one source describes as “brutal interrogations that effectively unfolded as live demonstrations.” Together, Jessen and Mitchell came to be known as the “Mormon mafia.”

Other LDS people involved in the development of Bush-administration torture tactics include Jay Bybee, who supervised and signed John Yoo’s 2002 “Torture Memo” effectively authorizing the United States’ use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” in Iraq; and Timothy Flanigan, deputy White House counsel who participated with Alberto Gonzalez in Bush’s “War Council” and testified before a Senate panel that waterboarding and other torture techniques should not necessarily be “off-limits” and that “inhumane can’t be coherently defined.” 

When dozens of religious leaders and organizations issued a 2005 statement calling on the Bush administration to rule out torture as anti-biblical, the LDS Church through a spokesman issued a statement “condemning inhumane treatment of any person under any circumstance.”

Romney, however, appears to be lining up with Jessen, Mitchell, Bybee, and Flanigan.

Last month, the New York Times disclosed a September 2011 memo drafted by Romney’s advisors advocating the resumption of so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” initiated under President George W. Bush but banned by President Barack Obama on his second day in office.

In a December 17, 2011 Town Hall meeting, Romney said, “I will not authorize torture.” But at the press conference after the Town Hall meeting, when a reporter asked him if he considered waterboarding to be torture, Romney responded “I don’t.”

Romney’s stance led one UN official to warn last week that his election would amount to “a democratic mandate for torture.”

While some LDS media observers have denied a pattern of Mormon involvement in torture, others in the Mormon community have called for closer consideration of this serious moral and ethical matter.

And it does matter. It matters because unlike in most contemporary American religious communities, Mormons are routinely expected to assess their own moral “worthiness” to participate in religious rites and to serve in their local congregations—including in positions of pastoral responsibility such as bishop (which both Governor Romney and Mr. Jessen have served). And moral worthiness in Mormon communities is now widely framed in terms of highly individualistic choices like payment of tithes, sexual chastity, and observance of restrictions on consumption of alcohol, tobacco, and coffee.  

It matters because it points to grave underdevelopment in the public morality and political theology of contemporary Mormonism. As Mormon Studies expert Professor Patrick Mason has told RD, Mormonism has “no systematic theology” on issues like human rights or poverty or war. Its view of morality is “highly individualized.”

And the torture issue matters to the question of how Romney will govern. We’ve consistently seen that the candidate will be essentially values-neutral in his approach in his approach to foreign and economic policy and centered on defending and promoting the interests of large institutions that reward loyalty. The chain of command and tactical advantages matter more than time-honored humane ideals. That’s a disposition Romney has in common with Jessen, Mitchell, Bybee, and other Mormons who have been in a position not only to support torture but to develop and implement it.

Once again, the issue is not that Mitt Romney is unduly influenced by his faith. It’s that his faith has little influence when it comes to some extremely serious moral questions.

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Joanna Brooks is the author of The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith (Free Press / Simon & Schuster, 2012) and a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches.