Friday, January 11, 2019

Self-Delusion Enabled by Religion: Former U.S. House Minority Leader Tom Delay and Monopolist John D. Rockefeller

It is hardly news that religion, even one based on divine love reaching down to “love thy neighbor,” can be stretched or simply ignored as needed by the desires for power and money. When these two are both engaged, religious rationales may be attempted nonetheless. I have in mind here the cases of former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) and the monopolist John D. Rockefeller. Just in evoking their Christian faith to justify their sordid conduct in politics and business, respectively, these two men may be seen as astounding cases of the length to which adherents can go in using religion even in spite of obvious hypocrisy.
On January 10, 2011, Tom DeLay was sentenced to three years in prison on charges of money laundering and conspiracy to commit money laundering. He had used a political action committee to illegally send corporate donations to Texas House candidates in 2002. Prosecutors claimed the money had helped Republicans take control of the Texas House. That in turn enabled the Republican majority to push through a Delay-engineered congressional redistricting plan that sent more Texas Republicans to Congress in 2004, strengthening DeLay's political power. In the face of this charge, DeLay simply repeated his longstanding claim that he did nothing wrong. "I can't be remorseful for something I don't think I did," DeLay said in a 10-minute speech to the judge.[i] This statement is not unlike those of John D. Rockefeller, the founder of the monopoly Standard Oil, which was accused in the late nineteenth century of restraint of trade. For his part, Rockefeller saw himself as a Noah or Christ figure in that he was trying to save struggling refiners from ruin by buying them up.
Ida Tarbell, Rockefeller's chief critic, believed the titan was under a sort of self-delusion. For example, Tarbell, whose father was an oil producer who resisted Rockefeller's grasp, pointed out that the titan's "Christ-like" efforts to "save" drowning refiners included ironically drowning those who refused to come aboard Standard Oil. Did Noah kill any animals who refused to come on the ark? Did Christ drown any people who refused to be saved? Clearly not. Rockefeller's application of religion to his monopolization is thus suspect in terms of his actions. It is possible that Delay suffered from a similar rationalization or state of denial.
Just as Rockefeller, who attended Church more than once a week through his 90s insisted that things are right between him and his God, DeLay pointed to his faith in Jesus as, in effect, rendering the verdict nugatory in terms of what really mattered. To be sure, DeLay probably did view himself as innocent of criminal conduct. "This criminalization of politics is very dangerous" he charged, "It's dangerous to our system. Just because somebody disagrees with you they got to put you in jail, bankrupt you, destroy your family."[2]  Antithetically, Gary Cobb, the lead prosecutor, averred that DeLay had "put his principles, ideals and beliefs above the laws of Texas." Particularly when one's religious beliefs are invoked along with a criminal defense (i.e., that it was politics that was being criminalized), one should be on guard against the possibility of self-delusion. 
Both Rockefeller and DeLay had immense power, and their respective views of non-culpability bore on their use of power. The ends justifying the means rationale allows for a slippery slope, which in turn can enable delusion with regard to culpability. Of course, in DeLay's case, an investigator could have simply looked at the money exchanges and compare them to the law. According to The New York Times, "a jury determined that he conspired with two associates to use his Texas-based political action committee to send $190,000 in corporate money to an arm of the Washington-based Republican National Committee. The RNC then sent the same amount to seven Texas House candidates. Under Texas law, corporate money can't go directly to political campaigns."[3] Yet as clear as this sounds, it is surprising how divergent DeLay and Cobb were with respect to their respective interpretations. If we take the verdict as correct, we might find it troubling that DeLay not only denied any culpability after the verdict, but also went on to invoke his salubrious condition in virtue of his religious faith. Such an invocation can easily turn into a justification, with the result being that great wrongs, such as the Crusades, can be done in the name of a religion of love. Followers of Jesus, who says not to lift a sword, have done just that in droves through history. DeLay invoked his religious faith and yet acted like one of the money-changers in the Temple. Rockefeller drowned struggling rivals who refused to be bought by Standard Oil, the great “combination” that Rockefeller himself designed as an alternative to destructive competition. Clearly, religion can be manipulated or ignored by even its adherents. Yet it is also possible that religion itself, being pliable on account of the presence of interpretation, support or enable its role in hypocrisy.

For more on John D. Rockefeller's use (or exploitation?) of religion, see God's Gold, available at Amazon. 

1. James C. McKinley, “DeLay Sentenced to 3 Years in Conspiracy and Money-Laundering Case,The New York Times, January 10, 2011.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.