By Tom Krattenmaker
Who would Jesus torture?
You might recall Palin’s zinger at the GOP convention. John McCain’s evangelical Christian running mate was in the midst of her mocking caricature of Democratic nominee Barack Obama when she charged: “Al-Qaida terrorists still plot to inflict catastrophic harm on America — and he’s worried that someone won’t read them their rights.”
Palin was obviously contending that the rights of detainees — including, judging from the larger context, the right not to be subjected to harrowing pain in the quest for intelligence — were of little concern in the fight against terrorism. And now, here come new polling data showing that a solid majority of white evangelicals in the South, unlike the American population at large, believes torture is justified in the interest of extracting important information.
It seems puzzling at first: The most vocal followers of Jesus — that teacher of turn-the-other-cheek love and compassion, even for one’s enemies — lining up more strongly than their fellow Americans in support for torture?
But maybe it’s not so surprising. Because hasn’t it been clear all along that, for many of the most politically active evangelicals, fidelity to the faith takes a back seat when it comes to power and politics?
Back to that snappy line from Palin’s big speech. Of course, terrorism and its perpetrators are a threat that must be confronted. Of course, Obama would be guilty of weak-kneed excess if he placed more emphasis on protecting al-Qaida terrorists’ rights than the lives of their would-be victims. But Obama and like-minded torture opponents advocate nothing of the sort. The concern is for innocent detainees, too many of whom have been locked up and abused without access to due process, and for the corrosive effect of torture on cherished American principles.
Then there’s the integrity of the Christian religion — already shredded, unfortunately, in the minds of many skeptical Americans. The extent of this thrashing, even among young people raised in the church, was documented last year in the influential book “unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity … and Why it Matters.” Based on extensive polling by the respected (and Christian) Barna Research Group, the book details how young Americans tend to see Christianity debased by its attachment to right-wing politics and its seeming disinterest in the love and compassion parts of Christian teaching.
The new findings about evangelicals and torture certainly won’t help in that regard. Commissioned by Mercer University and the Washington-based Faith in Public Life, and conducted by Public Religion Research, the survey finds that 57 percent of white evangelicals in the South believe torture can be justified. By comparison, an earlier poll by the Pew Research Center finds just 48 percent of the general public in support of torture.
Even more illuminating is this finding from the new poll: The evangelicals surveyed are far more likely to turn to life experience and common sense (44 percent) than Christian teaching (28 percent) in forming their opinion on torture. In other words, the segment of the population presumably most serious about their Christian faith is disinclined to be guided by the Bible on one of the central moral questions we face.
It comes as some relief to know that a different result emerged when the pollsters tweaked the question and challenged those surveyed to re-approach the issue with the Bible in mind, particularly its “do-unto others as you would have them do unto you” precept. Then, a majority agreed that torture should never be used.
Religion scholar Robert P. Jones, whose polling firm conducted the survey, believes evangelicals’ support for torture probably stems from two major impulses: Fear, and the understandable but unrealistic yearning for absolute safety from terrorists.
“When you reach for ultimate security and find it ever more elusive, you then begin to rationalize your principles in the way you treat people,” says Jones, author of the new book “Progressive and Religious.” “It extends all the way down to doing things that [before 9/11] would have been unthinkable, like rationalizing away the Geneva Conventions, and talking about how in these times we’re living in, the old morals don’t apply.”
Let’s think for another moment about this finding that evangelicals tend to consider something other than Christian teaching in formulating opinions on torture. Crunching the numbers, Jones found a strong correlation between political party affiliation and opinions about the justifiability of torture. Nearly two-thirds of Republicans in this survey supported torture, in contrast with just 42 percent of Democrats.
It’s not a flattering picture that emerges: Evangelicals influenced more by partisan impulses than teachings of their faith when it comes to the crucial moral issue of torture. Yes, we all want to be safe. But aren’t these the folks who have been shouting from the rooftops that America needs to be guided, first and foremost, by Christian virtue?
Unfortunately, a similar dynamic appears to operate on certain other issues as well. For his 2007 book “Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite,” religion scholar D. Michael Lindsay interviewed numerous evangelical CEOs who shrugged off outrageous executive compensation packages as something for which their boards were responsible. This, despite clear biblical teachings about the evils of excessive wealth (and despite the heartening presence of some Christian CEOs who have insisted on caps on their own compensation).
We could go on. From evangelicals’ general enthusiasm for an Iraq war that defied most interpretations of Christian just-war doctrine, to their support for political figures and tactics that defy all standards of decency and honesty, we see a pattern of behavior conspicuously out of step with the book they claim as their manual for living.
Evangelical Christians have no monopoly on hypocrisy. Who among us does not sometimes jettison our principles in the face of expediency, temptation or pressure? Yet it seems clear that many politically active evangelicals have invited this scrutiny and critique — by portraying themselves as more moral and “values”-driven than the rest of us, and as uniquely imbued with the will of God.
Thankfully, a different side of religion is providing a powerful corrective to the abdication of moral responsibility on the matter of torture and detainee abuse.
Locally, for example, Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon co-organized an interfaith forum on the ethics of torture this past summer, and, last month, EMO coordinated a drive to pressure U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., to endorse legislation forbidding detainee abuse. On the matter of interfaith dialogue — no small concern considering that Muslims are typically on the receiving end of U.S. torture — the Institute for Christian-Muslim Understanding here in Oregon has furnished valuable leadership.
And, tellingly, those who commissioned the evangelicals-and-torture survey are part of the growing movement of politically active liberal and beyond-partisan Christians. Whether religious progressives’ more forceful presence in the public arena swings this presidential election or not, this much is true: As Jones’ book title “Progressive and Religious” implies, there are more and deeply religious Americans who don’t align with the GOP — and who are no longer willing to leave publicly applied faith to the conservatives.
Is torture always wrong? We’ve all heard the scenarios about the necessity of extracting information from terrorists-in-the-know to foil their plots. If it were demonstrably true that torture would be effective in a given case and thus save thousands of lives, it’s difficult to say “never.” But does it ever really play out like the scenarios on “24,” the television show in which the hero can always count on a little torture to extract the intel and save the multitudes?
Experts point out that detainees in the throes of torture will say just about anything to end the pain, and in the absence of any means of verifying torture-induced information, the “extreme interrogation” seems of little avail. And even if it can be demonstrated that torture might work in a given situation, it still cannot be squared with traditional Christian ethics about the treatment of human beings.
As the surveyed evangelicals seemed to realize when confronted with the golden rule, torture is wrong — and it’s wrong whether viewed through the lens of religious teachings, terrorism-fighting tactics or American concepts of due process and humane treatment of prisoners.
Yes, it’s a fair question: Who would Jesus torture? And more to the point: Who would egg him on?
Tom Krattenmaker is a Portland-based writer specializing in religion in public life and a member of the USA Today Board of Contributors. His book on Christianity in professional sports will be published this spring.