The Difference Between Irving Kristol and John Yoo

Walking through the poli sci department the other day, I saw a pile of old books and magazines being thrown away, and happened to notice an article, “’Human Rights’: The Hidden Agenda,” by Irving Kristol in the Winter 1986/1987 issue of The National Interest.

It’s amazing how times have changed, as I noticed upon reading this, from the very first page of Kristol’s article, discussing the 19th-century British prime minister William Gladstone:

Gladstone was a believing Christian, with an intensity of religious commitment that, in the United States today, would surely be regarded as a disqualification for high office.

It’s actually hard to see that sentence making sense even in 1986—after all, the intensely religious Jimmy Carter had left office only a few years earlier—but I think we could all agree that, in the current era, intense religious commitment is hardly a disqualification for high office in this country. Just to consider recent presidential nominees, John McCain and Barack Obama do not seem particularly religious to me, but Mitt Romney does, and George W. Bush had intense religious views that didn’t stop him from serving two terms as president. And don’t forget Joe Lieberman who won more than half the national vote as a vice-presidential candidate and whose intense religious convictions were not considered a bar for his run in 2004.

It’s also interesting, in retrospect, that Kristol singled out the United States as a country where intense religiosity is a bar to high office, given that the U.S. nowadays is generally recognized to have more religion in politics, compared to other rich countries. Nowadays we think of the U.S. as a religious country with traditional values (compared to Europe), but in the wake of the 1970s it was still possible for to think of the United States as a leader in a trend toward anti-religious, hedonistic values.

My point here is not to score a Gotcha on the late Irving Kristol but rather to marvel at how much things have changed in only 25 years. Back in 1986 it was possible to argue that intensely religious politicians had no chance of holding national office in the United States; today it is accepted that religiosity is a plus (although perhaps we have receded from the high tide of the early 2000’s in that regard). And I think things really have changed: my impression is that national politicians talk a lot more about God than they did thirty years ago. For me, the turning point was Paul Laxalt’s speech in the 1988 Republican convention when he chewed out Geraldine Ferraro for not being a good Catholic. But that was just one of many events along the way.

Kristol’s article also contained this bit, which in retrospect sounds odd coming from a neoconservative:

Civilized opinion properly decided long ago that there is no justification [for torture], whatever the circumstances.

Things really have changed since 1986. Intense religious commitment is no longer regarded as a disqualification for high office in the United States, and there is no longer a bipartisan consensus against torture.

One might say that the neoconservative movement has gone from the Irving Kristol era to the John Yoo era.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

Andrew Gelman

Andrew Gelman is a professor of statistics and political science and director of the Applied Statistics Center at Columbia University.