Does conservative Christianity encourage torture?
That debate has been reignited by new numbers from the Pew Research Center that show white evangelicals are more supportive of “torture to gain important information from suspected terrorists” than any other religious or political group in the survey.
Less than half of the general public (49 percent) say government-sponsored torture can “often” or “sometimes” be justified, compared to almost two-thirds of white evangelicals (62 percent).
That view is almost identical to the view of Republicans (64 percent), giving fuel to the charge that evangelicals’ views on torture are rooted more in politics than their faith.
“Conservatives are living within their own moral universe,” said Joel Hunter, an evangelical megachurch pastor from suburban Orlando, Fla.
“In the last few decades, we have kind of created our own moral terms — more neoconservative than walking in sacrificial love.”
The torture debate within evangelical circles is as complex and multi-layered as evangelicals themselves. First, do the Pew numbers matter, and how much? And second, if evangelicals are finding their way to an endorsement of torture, how are they getting there?
The Pew numbers have prompted a great deal of soul-searching among Hunter and other evangelical leaders. David Gushee, an ethicist at Mercer University who has worked with the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, is one of them.
“These answers reveal deep problems in the moral formation of evangelical Christians, especially in the South, our capitulation to utilitarianism and nationalism rather than submission to the lordship of Christ, and our weakness in developing and committing to a human-rights ethic,” he said.
Richard Land, who heads the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and was a close ally of the Bush White House, is another torture critic.
“If the end justifies the means, then where do you draw the line?”
Land said in an interview. “It’s a moveable line. It’s in pencil, not in ink. I believe there are absolutes. There are some things we must never do.”
Yet some say the Pew numbers, like all survey data, can be problematic. Researchers did not define “torture,” and that’s the problem, say defenders of the Bush administration policy of “enhanced interrogation techniques.”
Two conservative Christian scholars insisted waterboarding is not torture, and can be morally defensible for Christians.
“Evangelicals, like everyone else, do not support any immoral use of force for any reason by anyone,” said Daniel Heimbach, professor of ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest. “And evangelicals, like everyone else, also believe that coercive methods of interrogation can be used within strict moral boundaries. There is, in fact, no moral disagreement on this.”
Keith Pavlischek of the Washington-based Ethics and Public Policy Center agrees with Gushee and others that Christians are not properly informed about the torture issue. But he insists if they were, they would understand that torture is not inherently evil according to Christian principles, “classic natural law” and just-war theory.
Labeling certain techniques as torture without doing the hard work of applying consistent moral principles distorts the debate, said Pavlischek, a former Marine lieutenant in Iraq and now director of EPPC’s Program to Protect America’s Freedom.
Simple slogans don’t help, either, he said, because the debate itself is not simple.
“If your first question is ‘What would Jesus do?’ you get a mess,” said Pavlischek. “The reason evangelicals are confused (on torture) is because evangelical leaders are confused.”
While many evangelical leaders say they were shocked and embarrassed by the latest Pew findings, they were equally troubled when survey data last October indicated evangelical views on torture are more often influenced by “common sense” and “life experiences” rather than Christian teachings or beliefs.
“The data in our survey points to many white evangelicals thinking first as partisans and second as people of faith,” said researcher Robert Jones, whose firm, Public Religion Research, conducted the October study for Mercer University and the Washington-based group Faith in Public Life.
“When they engage their faith in thinking about the issue, support for torture drops.”
Hunter, for his part, blames “a whole lot of evangelicals (who) are listening to a whole lot of talk radio” and seeing the debate solely through the lens of national security and homeland security.
“Many of them see patriotism in terms of protecting our country rather than remembering the admonition in Scripture that you don’t overcome evil with evil but rather overcome evil with good,” said Hunter, who holds an advisory seat on President Obama’s faith-based office.
Support for torture can’t be blamed on a lack of religious education; in fact, the Pew numbers showed that support for torture actually increased among those who attended church more frequently.
“It would be easy for casual news watchers to conclude that if you want to end torture in this country, the best thing to do would be to empty out the churches,” Gushee wrote in a column for the Associated Baptist Press.