Seattle was still reeling from the cold blooded execution of a police officer on Halloween, when the news hit on Sunday that four more officers were dead. Monday, as I was trying to weave my way through a city swarming with blue cars and uniforms, and drenched with anxiety and grief, I couldn’t help wondering about how an erratic serial criminal like Maurice Clemmons ends up on the streets. And since Clemmons was pardoned by Mike Huckabee, the Arkansas governor and presidential hopeful who has made fundamentalist religion the center of his politics, I couldn’t help wondering if religion played a part.
It turns out that, in fact, religion may have played several different roles in the tragedy, just as it did in the recent slaughter at Fort Hood. This time, though, Islam had nothing to do with it. At Fort Hood, fundamentalist Christianity created an adversarial, proselytizing, holy war atmosphere, while Islam released the trigger lock. In the Seattle killings, Christianity stands as the one theological ingredient in the lethal brew. It consumed the mind of the killer, who possibly had apocalyptic delusions. A Seattle Times headline today quoted his uncle: “He was all about money . . . suddenly, he was all about God.”
One of the challenges in identifying and responding effectively to religious delusions is that we all have been taught to turn off our critical faculties when people spout dogma. In Religulous, Bill Maher put a wild-eyed actor on the streets of London to recite the tenets of Scientology. He sounded like a paranoid schizophrenic. But when those same ideas are touted by Tom Cruise, polite society smiles and nods, and no one makes a move to get him meds.
When it comes to their own religion, moderate people of faith often defer publicly to even the wildest fellow believers. Most mainline Christians maintain downcast eyes while fundamentalists rant about demons and witchcraft and spiritual warfare. Mainstream Muslims are painfully quiet about terrorism in the name of God. The Rick Warrens and Joel Olsteens of the world go mute when the book of Psalms is used to invoke God as a celestial hit man against Mikey Weinstein (Military Religious Freedom Foundation) or Barack Obama. Christian Science lobbyists make straight-faced attempts to get “prayer treatments” paid for by any national health plan, and somehow lawmakers maintain straight faces.
Social psychologists have pointed out that we humans often fall prey to a “similar-to-me” bias. When assessing job applicants for example, we give higher ratings to people who are like us in superficial and irrelevant ways: people who went to the same school, who look like us, who cheer the same sports team, or who share our religion. The same may be true of applicants for penal clemency.
What role did religion play in how other people responded to Clemmons, in the “system breakdown” that cost four people their lives? Let’s look at just Mike Huckabee’s role. Was Huckabee influenced to pardon Clemmons because of their shared Christian belief? We cannot read Huckabee’s mind. What we do know is that Clemmons certainly played that card, pointing out his Christian upbringing and telling Huckabee that he was praying that Huckabee would grant him clemency. This approach would make sense given Huckabee’s reputation. Per Joe Conason at Salon, “Huckabee granted mercy to prisoners whom he chanced to meet, to prisoners who had personal connections to him or his family, and especially to prisoners who were vouchsafed to him by the pastors he had befriended during his years as a Baptist minister and denominational leader.”
Mike Huckabee’s Christianity is the same kind I grew up in: Evangelical fundamentalism. One of the core aspects of Evangelicalism is that if you are saved, the past is wiped clean. The worst murderer can go to heaven as long as he accepts Jesus as his savior through a deathbed conversion. The most thoughtful, compassionate Buddhist will be tortured in hell. It’s all about being born again. Once you are born again, you are a new man in Christ.
In general, Republican biblical literalists like Huckabee (sometimes called “Rebiblicans”) talk about being tough on criminals. But an appeal from a fellow believer can complicate the tough-on-crime thing. Christians seek to be godly in their behavior which can take you in the direction of advocating the mortal equivalent of eternal punishment – or in the direction of a pardon, especially for those who claim the blood of Jesus (which is, after all, the only way any of us can demonstrate real repentance.) As one Huckabee fan said, “I can not in good conscience condemn Huckabee for this. He was doing what Jesus would want done. You know forgiveness.”
Forgiveness is one thing. Religiously motivated ignorance is another. Ironically, neither of the two biblical approaches to immorality (blanket condemnation or blanket forgiveness) is a particularly good fit for the real world complexities that lead to murder. The one ignores how much each of us is a mixed package of genetics and life experiences, hopes and fears, failings and strivings, growth and continuity. The other ignores----well, actually, it ignores the same package.
In psychology, there is an old adage: “The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.” There’s no such thing as a clean slate. That is not to say that people can’t change. But it is to say that the past is relevant, and that change usually is an evolutionary, incremental, complex process. People can and do have transformative, born again experiences. These occur in small counter-cultural cults like scientology as well as Christianity. (SeeJim and Flo Siegelman’s excellent book, Snapping.) But what can toggle in one direction can toggle in the other. The kind of clean slate that evangelicals and career criminals are looking for is, in my mind, a dangerous delusion.
Would Huckabee have been so forgiving if Clemmons was a Wiccan or an atheist or a Muslim? That depends on how much he was driven by his Evangelicalism. Evangelicals of Huckabee’s sort think that morality comes from belief. That is why they are passionate about taking “dominion” and ruling the country according to biblical principles. They ignore the fact that the lowest crime rates and teen pregnancies in the world are in the nations that also happen to have the lowest rates of religious belief. They ignore the fact that the lowest rates of divorce and teen pregnancy in the U.S.A. are in the least religious regions. Despite all evidence to the contrary, they think that the problems we face as a nation are caused by our increasing godlessness.
Conversely, in their estimation, a born-again Christian can be counted on to be a good person, to run an ethical business, or to make good decisions about war. That is why evangelical businesses often display a Jesus fish or another Evangelical symbol. It is their way of saying this business can be trusted. It is also why, for many Evangelicals, it is irrelevant that G.W. Bush or Sarah Palin might know little about foreign policy. That they know Jesus is enough.
I for one am weary of “Christian” ignorance posing as righteousness and “Christian” tribalism posing as compassion. We will never know for sure if either played a role in Huckabee’s decision to commute the sentence of Maurice Clemmons, but we shouldn't have to even wonder. Clemency decisions should be based on the best evidence available. It is long past time for articles like this one to become irrelevant.