The difference between Irving Kristol and John Yoo

by Andrew Gelman on December 27, 2012 · 19 comments

in Campaigns and elections,Comparative Politics,Media

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.


Matt P. December 27, 2012 at 11:29 am

Uh, Pat Robertson was a major contender in the 1988 GOP primaries.

Your whole post assumes there is one “set in stone” definition of what is torture. That is what Yoo was charged with analyzing. The Dems had full knowledge of this it seems to me and there was consensus until they decided to make it an issue afterwards.

Was there a consensus in the late 80s about targeted drone killings and assassination? ;-)

Andrew Gelman December 27, 2012 at 12:49 pm


1. I was thinking about Pat Robertson but I wanted to give the 1986-era Kristol the benefit of the doubt so I decided it was fair to consider Pat Robertson, like Jesse Jackson, as someone who was a serious candidate yet had no real chance of getting the nomination.

2. I’m not sure what you’re saying here. My point was that in 1986, Irving Kristol stated that there was no justification for torture in any circumstances, a position that many neoconservatives don’t hold today.

RobC December 27, 2012 at 1:22 pm

There may be some neoconservatives who support the use of torture in extreme circumstances, just as there may be some liberals (e.g., Alan Dershowitz) who do. But you referred specifically to John Yoo, who to the best of my knowledge has not taken that position. Concluding that a particular practice does not constitute torture (as Yoo did) is quite different from endorsing torture. If that were not so, those of us who support abortion but oppose torture are in a pickle. It is only the fact that we define torture not to include actions on fetuses that saves us from essential inconsistency.

Andrew Gelman December 27, 2012 at 7:01 pm


There’s this notorious bit, for example. In these quotes, Yoo doesn’t endorse torture but he’s pretty careful not to rule it out, either.

Andrew Gelman December 27, 2012 at 8:50 pm


Regarding the torture issue, perhaps some background would help. Kristol made the comment about torture being unacceptable in the context of arguing that the U.S. should be ok if our allies such as Turkey are torturing people. I think the idea of the U.S. torturing people was not even in his radar screen. Yoo, on the other hand (and Dershowitz, as you note), was careful to not rule out various tortures that could be authorized by the U.S. president. This really does seem like a big shift to me. Kristol characterized torture as “used today mainly in countries where it has been a traditional practice for centuries,” and it’s pretty clear he wasn’t including the U.S. in this category.

RobC December 27, 2012 at 9:24 pm

What I was trying to say, perhaps imperfectly, is that Yoo wasn’t endorsing the use of torture, he was saying which procedures would constitute torture within the meaning of existing laws and treaties (which have the force of law) and would therefore be prohibited. Maybe he’s right about that interpretation, maybe he’s wrong. But don’t blame the messenger. That’s different from Dershowitz, some other liberals, neoconservatives and writers of “24,” who are prepared to say that in extraordinary circumstances torture is acceptable.

LFC December 27, 2012 at 9:55 pm

Suppose a law professor (on leave to work in the govt) writes a memo in his official govt capacity saying that practice X — which most people and govts consider to be torture — is actually not torture within the meaning of existing law for reasons A, B and C. And suppose this memo is widely considered to be weak and/or absurd by the large majority of legal scholars and in effect simply a rationalization for what the CIA and other parts of the US govt wanted to do. If this matches the Yoo case — and my impression is that it does — then while he may not have technically endorsed torture, he facilitated and gave legal cover to practices that are either torture or its functional equivalent. In these circumstances, yes, one can blame the “messenger.”

LFC December 27, 2012 at 10:03 pm

Also, read the Wikipedia bit linked by A. Gelman above, where Yoo says basically that there are circumstances in which there are no legal constraints on the President’s authority to order torture.

Richard Hershberger December 27, 2012 at 12:27 pm

I think Carter was always considered a bit of an oddity in presidential politics. Democrat probably voted for him despite his religion, while Republicans have spent the past three decades carefully forgetting it, as it doesn’t fit with their narrative of vilification. Then we have Saint Ronald, who has been assigned deep religious convictions after the fact, but barely went through the motions at the time. In retrospect we see that the 1980s was the decade of the rise of the religious right in politics, but my recollection was that it wasn’t obvious at the time. Recall the sanctuary movement, with churches taking in refugees from the right wing regime in El Salvador. That was a lefty church movement, and quite prominent at the time. It is hard to imagine anything similar today. It was the last gasp of the liberal church before “Christian” became synonymous with “reactionary”. There are hopeful signs that this might be changing.

So Kristol was out of touch in 1986, but not ridiculously so.

LFC December 27, 2012 at 4:53 pm

It was the last gasp of the liberal church before “Christian” became synonymous with “reactionary”.

Bit of an overstatement. There are still left-liberal Christians. E.g., to take one example:

Richard Hershberger December 28, 2012 at 9:19 pm

Quite true. I should have written “…became synonymous in the popular and journalistic culture…”

Nameless January 1, 2013 at 9:28 pm

In 1986 we had a church (or rather, a group of Christian churches, which included Catholics, Mormons and most Protestants) that already had well-defined positions on a number of social issues (abortion, contraception, gay rights), and two parties which were fairly moderate on these issues. It was not yet the case, like today, that Democrats were pro-abortion and Republicans were anti-abortion. A politician could go one way or the other on any specific issue regardless of party affiliation. In this environment, sticking completely to the religious doctrine could have been considered too extreme for a mainstream politician.

Between 1986 and 2000, parties moved sharply away from each other, Democrats aligned themselves with urban non-religious voters and Republicans aligned themselves with Southern white evangelicals. All of a sudden an intensely-religious position was no longer outside the mainstream, it was within the normal bell curve for one of the parties.

Jacob December 28, 2012 at 12:31 pm

Obama would not be considered religious mostly because his religious affiliation with Reverend Jeremiah Wright is considered a political liability that should be downplayed, and because conservative evangelical Christianity (and possibly orthodox Judaism) is the sole sort of intense religiosity now tolerated and encouraged in national politics..

I think Obama sincerely thought his Christian belief was going to be a crucial part of his candidacy (“even in the Blue states, we worship an awesome god,”) given that he dedicated his running-for-president book to Reverend Wright.

Philosophy Student January 1, 2013 at 5:23 pm

Prof. Gelman,
I have a lot of respect from your work, but this post seems to suffer from an obvious case of myopia. This myopia is common to both of your claims against Kristol.
Yes, we have had religious presidents, even a couple of committed ones, but Kristol is talking about a level of intensity that we would no longer tolerate. Fervent religious people circa 1990 or 2010, especially the ones near high office, are often much watered down versions of their counterparts in 1890 (or 1840). Just think of William Jennings Bryan. Imagine him running on one of the two party tickets today (and several times, to boot). Gladstone was far more fervent, and wore his religious politics on his sleeve in a manner that would be intolerable (or at least uncouth) today. A cursory glance on wikipedia will show you this. We’re talking about a man who wrote anti-papal pamphlets, walked the streets of London trying to personally convert prostitutes, and who at various times in his career advocated the infallibility of the Church of England (which at the time was a powerful and theistic body).

The same can be said for torture. Whatever you think of waterboarding or other means that US uses in Guantanamo it requires a bit of blindness not to see how this is very different (or at least can be honestly perceived as being very different) from the sort of torture that offends the conscience of all civilized men… I’m not arguing that for or against waterboarding here. The point simply is that the UN definition of torture as all forms of physical infliction is not necessarily the same thing as what ‘civilized opinion decided long ago’ (nor could THAT have been the long ago decision, since the UN declaration only came into effect that same year, 1987) .

So the way I see it, in both cases we are taking a term (religious; torture) and using our own watered down 2010 version of them, and thus expressing surprise how in 1986/7 those things (in their non-diluted version) were off the table, but now they’re back! But they’re not. Nobody in the United States advocates bringing back the iron maiden, certainly not to extract confessions (as opposed to preventative measures) and nobody would elect a candidate who actively engaged in missionary work, tried to discredit other denominations on theological grounds, or who regularly expressed belief in day to day miracles (the latter is not something I’m saying Gladstone did – just a sense of what sort of religious belief we don’t find electable)

Andrew Gelman January 1, 2013 at 5:49 pm


I’m not claiming anything against Kristol. I’m just saying that I doubt that either of the two statements he made in 1986 would be made by a neoconservative today. And I think there have been real changes in U.S. politics since 1986. Overt expression of strong religious sentiments has become much more acceptable at the highest levels of American politics, and, for whatever reasons, conservatives are much less likely to say that torture is categorically unacceptable. Maybe you’re right that part of the story is changing of definitions; still, it was striking to me to see those two quotes which I don’t think one would hear today.

Nameless January 2, 2013 at 12:13 am

“nobody would elect a candidate who actively engaged in missionary work, tried to discredit other denominations on theological grounds, or who regularly expressed belief in day to day miracles”

We do know that voters would elect a candidate who served as a pastor for 12 years; who’s willing to go on record saying that school shootings occur because we have a “sin problem” and because we have “ordered God out of our schools”; and who says that he “got into politics because I knew government didn’t have the real answers, that the real answers lie in accepting Jesus Christ into our lives”.

The person I’m describing got 40% of the state vote in a Southern state in 1992, got elected governor of the same state in 1996, and then came in third by popular vote in Republican primaries in 2008.

Philosophy Student January 2, 2013 at 6:23 pm

Your clever response unwittingly makes my point. Huckabee is not electable on the national level for precisely the grounds you mention (although I think your characterization of his comment on the school shootings is somewhat uncharitable). If anything, my point is more vulnerable if you point to Romney who, in retrospect, arguably could be said to meet the qualifications of the quote you supplied (sans the discrediting part). But the point still stands: people like Romney are not the sort of red-meat religious types that were typical in 19th century anglo-american politics, and Huckabee, who arguably is (although I’m not sure even he is) is not electable in our setting, is not electable.
Prof. Gelman’s point about the actual comment (de dicto) is taken. But I don’t think it expresses the profound shift that he is implying that it does.

Nameless January 3, 2013 at 1:22 am

I think it depends on what exactly we mean by “electable”. It is self-evident that Huckabee is electable in a narrow sense of the word: he has been elected governor of Arkansas three times! A person with these qualities would be just as likely to be elected as a senator, or to be appointed to any position of power in Washington. I don’t think you can even argue that a person like Huckabee is totally incapable of winning Republican primaries.

At best, you might say that Huckabee is not “electable” because he does not stand a chance in nationwide elections. And even then we can’t be completely sure of that. This country is much more religious than the subset its internet users, and its median likely voter are more religious than its median citizen.

What exactly is uncharitable about my characterization of his comment on the school shootings? And did I characterize it at all? I thought I quoted it verbatim. In case you suspected that it was a slip of the tongue, 14 years ago, after a school shooting in Arkansas, he wrote a whole book, where he blamed the culture of violence, among other causes, on “Abortion, environmentalism, AIDS, pornography, drug abuse, and homosexual activism”. You really can’t make this stuff up.

Nameless January 3, 2013 at 1:29 am

And, by the way, Gladstone never won any nationwide elections either.

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