Torture debate prompts evangelical soul-searching

A number of evangelical leaders have made opposition to torture without exceptions a moral cause over the past three years, part of a broadening of the movement’s agenda beyond traditional culture war issues. Others in the movement, including many Christian right leaders, have largely resisted or stayed silent.

Now, President Barack Obama’s release of Bush administration memos justifying harsh interrogation techniques and a new poll showing white evangelicals more sympathetic to torture have leaders taking stock of whether evangelical opinion has shifted on the topic.

“I have said before that torture is like a bone caught in our throat – we can’t swallow it and we can’t spit it out,” said David Gushee, a professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University in Atlanta and president of Evangelicals for Human Rights. “I think we’re still there.”

The poll data from a survey of 742 U.S. adults released April 29 by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found 62 percent of white evangelical Protestants said torture of a suspected terrorist could be often or sometimes justified to obtain important information.

By contrast, 51 percent of white non-Hispanic Catholics, 46 percent of white mainline Protestants and 40 percent of the religiously unaffiliated held that position.

Those who attend religious services at least once a week were more likely than those who rarely or never attend to say torture is sometimes or often justified in that scenario – 54 percent to 42 percent.

The findings immediately prompted questions for evangelicals: How exactly did poll participants define torture, since the survey did not? Did evangelicals reach their conclusions because of their religious beliefs, or their politics or ideological leanings? How do you untangle those factors from each other?

Pew officials later updated the analysis to emphasize that religion “is only one of many factors” – and that political party and ideology are much better predictors of opinions on torture than religion and most other demographic factors. At the same time, the report noted, religion itself can play a strong role in shaping partisanship and ideology.

“My experience is that people who are comfortable supporting torture support it because they think it’s going to produce information our country needs,” said the Rev. Richard Killmer, a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) minister and executive director of the interfaith National Religious Campaign Against Torture, which formed in 2006. “I don’t think they would shy away from use of the word ‘torture.'”

“During the last eight years, people have been concerned about this ticking time bomb thing and Jack Bauer and ’24’ and all that,” said Killmer, referring to the TV drama in which the protagonist takes a by-any-means-necessary approach to extracting information from terror suspects.

Among evangelicals, Gushee has been a leading anti-torture advocate. He led the effort to draft, in 2006, “An Evangelical Declaration Against Torture: Protecting Human Rights in an Age of Terror.” The document, which has 250 signatures, renounced torture and “cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of detainees.”

Last fall, a poll commissioned by Faith in Public Life and Mercer University found that 44 percent of white Southern evangelicals rely on life experience and common sense to form opinions on torture. By contrast, 28 percent said they relied on Christian teachings or beliefs.

Even so, Gushee said he senses a “deep moral, spiritual and theological problem” in evangelical support for torture.

“There is a version of Christianity in America that I think is not adequately committed to the Bible’s teachings about the sacredness of every human life, including the lives of our enemies,” Gushee said. “It’s also insufficiently committed to the peacemaking teachings of Jesus and the example of Jesus as one who did not resort to violence or cruelty to accomplish any of his goals and instead suffered violence instead of inflicting it.”

Gary Bauer, a former Republican presidential candidate affiliated with several Christian right groups over the years, said the discussion should not come down to “Would Jesus torture?”

“There are a lot of things Jesus wouldn’t do because he’s the son of God,” he said. “I can’t imagine Jesus being a Marine or a policeman or a bank president, for that matter. The more appropriate question is, ‘What is a follower of Jesus permitted to do?'”

Bauer said the answer is “it depends” – but the moral equation changes when the suspect is not a soldier captured on a battlefield but a terrorist who may have knowledge of an impending attack. He said he does not consider water-boarding – a form of interrogation that simulates drowning – to be torture.

“I think if we believe the person we have can give us information to stop thousands of Americans from being killed, it would be morally suspect to not use harsh tactics to get that information,” Bauer said.

Under Christianity’s just-war tradition, recognized political authorities have the responsibility to protect the innocent from grave harm, said Keith Pavlischek, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, evangelical scholar and retired Marine colonel.

That means not just lives that would be lost in an attack, but the justice, order and peace of the broader international community at risk from terrorism, said Pavlischek, a member of the Presbyterian Church in America, a conservative denomination.

If authorities believe a detainee has information about an imminent attack, it’s morally acceptable to use coercion, inflict pain, cause discomfort and use force in an attempt to prevent the attack, he said.

But it is not black and white in determining when interrogation tactics cross the line to unjust torture, Pavlischek said. He said while evidence exists that water-boarding might be out of line, “it’s a hard call.” Similarly, sleep deprivation can also be used to extremes and cross the line, but not always.

Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest evangelical church body, revealed this month that he believes water-boarding is torture and never justified. He said part of his conclusion is based on his belief that it’s “very likely to cause permanent psychological damage.”

“It seems to me once you accept the ‘end justifies the means’ argument, then you have taken a step onto a very steep and slippery slope to dark and dangerous place,” Land said.

He emphasized that Christian tenets that guide the debate – including the Golden Rule, or “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” – can be applied differently. He said that while terrorists should not be “mistreated,” neither do they deserve protections afforded prisoners of war by the Geneva Convention.

Land said some harsh interrogation techniques – such as slapping with an open hand – can be morally permissible.

David Neff, editor of Christianity Today magazine and chairman of the board of the National Association of Evangelicals, which endorsed the evangelical declaration against torture, said torture is not a subject preached at most evangelical churches. So white evangelical support for torture is more likely rooted in their strong allegiance the Republican Party.

“There is a sense of, ‘We trust this administration that was leading us through this difficult time post-911, and if they say we have to do this, chances are that sometimes it’s necessary,'” Neff said.

He added: “It think it is extremely important for the U.S. government, for our own security, to operate as ethically as possible, because what we sow, we reap.”

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.


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