A new poll from the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life found that 62 percent of white evangelical Protestants surveyed believe that torture is often or sometimes justified. The poll also found that 44 percent of all regular churchgoers – regardless of race or denomination – believe that torture is often or sometimes justified.
David Gushee, a Baptist ethicist at Mercer University in Macon, Ga., said the poll is a sign of moral failure. He believes the war on terror has made Christians ignore the Bible.
Jesus, he said, told his followers to love their enemies. That makes torture unacceptable.
“It’s almost like we’ve got post-traumatic moral syndrome,” Gushee said. “We are giving the terrorists too much power if we say that they are so scary, we have to set aside 200 years of U.S. law to defeat them.”
For years, Gushee and other leaders of the National Campaign Against Torture have tried to change the United States policy on torture and interrogation. They were pleased with President Barack Obama’s executive order banning waterboarding and other interrogation techniques.
But that’s not enough, said Linda Gustitus, president of the campaign. She wants churchgoers and other citizens to reject torture completely.
“We cannot be confident that the United States will never use torture again unless the American people, including people of faith, believe it is wrong to do so – under all circumstances,” Gustitus said.
Americans have traditionally taken that approach. During the Revolutionary War, George Washington warned his soldiers not to mistreat prisoners.
“Treat them with humanity,” he wrote, “and let them have no reason to complain of our copying the brutal example of the British Army in their treatment of our unfortunate brethren who have fallen into their hands.”
Gushee said that aside from not being Christian-like, torture is ineffective.
“People being tortured are in pain and will lie to stop the torture,” he said.
In most cases, he said, torture is used to intimidate or punish prisoners, not gain useful information.
That should concern Christians in the United States, he said, because many of their fellow believers are tortured for their faith around the world. And totalitarian governments use torture to wipe out any political dissent.
“Torture means to crush a human body and a human spirit,” he said.
Politics skew results?
So, why do so many evangelicals support torture?
Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Conventions, said one reason is theological. Conservative Christians tend to have a pessimistic view of human nature. They are willing to justify torture if it can save lives.
“They believe in the innate sinfulness of human beings,” he said. “So they believe that sometimes you have to choose between doing a greater evil and a lesser evil.”
Political affiliation also plays a role. Pew researchers found that 64 percent of Republicans said that torture is often or sometimes justified, as opposed to 36 percent of Democrats.
Since evangelicals and regular churchgoers are more likely to be Republicans, that may skew the results.