Baptism As Torture: Une Petite Histoire
As we ponder Sarah Palin’s applause line “waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists,” let us recall these lines from a letter the fanatical Jacobin Jean-Lambert Tallien sent from Nantes to the National Convention in Paris, during the Revolution-era massacres. He was reporting on the work he and fellow revolutionary Jean-Baptiste Carrier were doing cleansing the Loire Valley of royalists, Catholics, and other counterrevolutionary terrorists:
Tomorrow I and Carrier have prepared a civic baptism for 1,200 women and children, mothers, sisters, wives, daughters, or sons, of the accursed Brigands of the Vendée: in two days, three impure generations of rebels and fanatics, have ceased to be.
The Drownings at Nantes — the French Revolution’s “civic baptisms” — were one of the most notorious episodes of the Reign of Terror. You might say: those people were innocent, and terror suspects are not. That would be to miss the point. From the point of view of the Revolutionary government, those people were terrorists. This is not a matter of squishy relativism. Some things are intrinsically evil — that is, evil despite the ends to which they are dedicated. Even terrorists are made in the image of God. When we deliberately and with malicious forethought commit torture against other human beings, even those who by their acts have given themselves over to inhumanity, we become what we hate.
It would have been awful had Palin not compared the signal act of American torture in recent years with baptism. But it’s worse that she did, because of what baptism represents — and indeed, what baptism represents to her personally. Here’s a short clip from a 700 Club interview from a few years ago, in which Sarah Palin discussed what her own baptism meant for her. She describes it as a public symbol of her inner conversion to Christianity. She calls it:
“The manifestation of that belief that I had, I was very aware of what I could do about [my conversion] at the time, and at the time that was to take that public step, and be baptized. And you know the principle that’s behind that too, when you’re raised up out of the water, you’re like, ‘Hey world, this is my confession of faith, I’m going to try to lead and live my life according to my belief that God, as my creator, has good plans for all of us, and we are to seek those plans, and seek the destiny he has for all of us.'”
Hey world, Sarah Palin believes those “good plans” that God has for us, that holy “destiny,” can include torturing other human beings. And she’s not apologizing for it. At the very best, torture might be a tragic necessity — I don’t think so, but I’m trying to think about it from the other side — but Palin and her audience don’t think so. They laugh at it and cheer for it. This is decadence.
In the Inferno, Dante punishes corrupt Popes who profaned their holy office by having them turned upside down in a baptismal font, legs sticking out, flames licking their feet. It is the Devil’s baptism, a satanic mockery of the true life given (or, if you prefer, symbolized by) Christian baptism. Mocking baptism by conflating it with torture is what they do in Hell. In Palinworld, it is a sign of courage and virtue.
UPDATE: Of course. Why didn’t I think of it before. Sarah Palin is the Madame Defarge of the populist American right.