Now This Is Basic, Folks

A recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center indicates that the majority of regular churchgoing Americans, and especially white evangelicals, believe that torture can “often” or at least “sometimes be justified.” What is shocking is that these figures are greater than the national average, a fact which causes pollsters to conclude, ironically, that religion may be a factor in where one stands on the issue.

The percentage was higher among those who attend religious services on a weekly basis (54%) than among those who attended less frequently or not at all, but highest among those who identified themselves as white evangelicals (62%)! To view the poll results click on this link:

Press speculation on the reasons for the high numbers ranges from political affiliation (white evangelicals tend to be conservatives) to the nature of Christianity itself (Jesus was tortured, after all). But I blame white evangelical pastors. Where are the voices crying out against such injustice and savagery? Evidently, not in the pulpit.

One of the duties of a preacher is to help his or her flock to learn to think, not just conservatively or liberally, but biblically on the issues of the day. From a New Testament perspective, can torture ever be justified? Under exactly what circumstances, for example, would Jesus engage in waterboarding? Does that question make us uncomfortable? It should. Unfortunately, one is left to conclude that many churchgoers are not using the Bible at all to form their opinions. Rather, they are probably listening to such “prophets” as Rush Limbaugh (speaking of torture), who stated recently that torture obviously “works” because John McCain admitted he was “broken” by it. What an insensitive statement that dishonors a man like Sen. McCain, who suffered years of torture at the hands of the VietCong and whose voice on the subject, therefore, should have our respect.

Let me say something unequivocal (and you can quote me): If that is where you are being fed, by shock-jocks like Limbaugh, please consider adding a little Christianity to your diet. You might also want to repent. Jesus is coming back soon.

Torturing another human being is neither a conservative nor a liberal issue; it is a moral one. (It is also, thank God, still against the law in this country.) It belongs up there with other absolutes like murdering the unborn. How can one be against abortion and for torture? I’d like to hear their case. Being pro-life should mean one is for the dignity of human life across the board, so let’s not make a mockery of the Bible by picking and choosing.

Certainly, one can try to make the point that there are cases in which torturing a prisoner could be justified in order to save lives. The usual casuistry is to resort to the hypothetical situation in which there is a briefcase with a nuclear device hidden somewhere in NYC. It’s set to go off at any minute. You’ve apprehended one of the terrorists, but he refuses to tell you anything. With so many innocent lives at stake, what would you do? It’s easy for anyone to hit the panic button in such a case.

Unfortunately, real-life cases are never so neat and tidy, never so clear-cut. Using such hypotheticals to justify torture is, as the organization Evangelicals for Human Rights puts it, like trying to legalize adultery because there might be a case in which a person holding your child hostage might require you to have sex in order to let the child go. (Incidentally, isn’t it ironic that we even have to have such organizations as EHR? Shouldn’t the very word evangelical be synonymous with concern for human rights? Sadly, in reality it is not; in fact, quite the opposite.)

Jesus taught us to “do to others what you would have them to do you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” That means we should treat our enemies and prisoners as we would wish to be treated if we were in their place– that is, with dignity, respect and the rule of law. How would you feel if your son or daughter returned home from war having been subjected to the most brutal torture, his spirit broken along with his body? Probably just as McCain’s mother felt.

No government can or should be trusted with such absolute power over another human being. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and none of us under such circumstances could continue to avoid the utter depravity of human nature. Look at Abu Ghraib. I’m glad the Founding Fathers knew this, good Calvinists that they were. That’s why they promoted a system of accountability in government and forbade cruel and unusual forms of punishment. (For more on how torture was viewed by our Founding Fathers, see

Torture not only degrades the tortured, it also dehumanizes the torturer. Since Abu Ghraib have we all not become a little less human? We’ve certainly been degraded as a nation in the eyes of the world. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, himself a victim of torture, in his Gulag Archipelago noted, “Our torturers have been punished most horribly of all; they are turning into swine, they are departing downward from humanity.”

In a 2005 Newsweek article, Sen. McCain said this: “What I mourn is what we lose when…we allow, confuse, or encourage our soldiers to forget that best sense of ourselves, that which is our greatest strength– that we are different and better than our enemies, that we fight for an idea, not a tribe, not a land, not a king…but for an idea that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights.”

For a set of opposing views on the subject, see

(Thanks to Evangelicals for Human Rights for quotations and other info used in this blog.)


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  1. Some of these torture techniques used by the U.S. were actually perfected during Stalin’s reign of terror in the 1930s. They were actually designed to extract confessions of guilt from innocent people, rather than to get any accurate information. Stalin did not care about accurate information; he just wanted a reason to execute or “gulag” people he didn’t like. So why do we think such methods would result in accurate information? Кто знает?

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