Torture and Religion


A new Pew Survey suggests that support for the use of torture is positively correlated with religious devotion.  Not surprisingly, white mainline Christians (Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, etc.) are less inclined to support the use of torture than white evangelicals with white Catholics hovering somewhere in between.

But the non-religious are less likely to support the use of torture than the folks in any religious category.

As a person of faith, I find this disturbing.

Question: what about the Hispanic catholics and black evangelicals?  Why did the Pew study leave them out, or did they simply drop them from the published summary?  Either way, the ommission is disturbing.

This is a subject we have dealt with in this space before.  In “Who would Jesus torture?”  Lydia Bean interacted with the views of a conservative Christian blogger.  But the torture issue also relates to my “The religious roots of Southern punitiveness”.  

Why are conservative Christians so enamored of torture, mass incarceration and capital punishment?  Why are incarceration rates in the cluster of southern states to the east of Texas twice the national average?  And why have over 80% of the executions perpetrated since the re-introduction of the death penalty in 1979 occurred in the South? 

Conversely, why are incarceration rates relatively low in Yankee New England, a region that hardly ever resorts to the ultimate penalty?

The same torture divide is apparent between democrats and republicans, of course, but as the GOP lurches rightward, religious and political conservatives are becoming indistinguishable.

Jesus of Nazareth taught non-violence and provided no escape clause.  The philosophical distance between the canonical Gospels and traditional “Just War” theory is astonishing.  When learned evangelicals seek to justify their support for torture they eschew the words of their Master and cleave to the dictates of St. Augustine. 

For better or worse, religious traditions take on a life of their own.  Southern Baptists, like every other other religious group, have their own distinctive ethos.  Established norms, not sacred scripture, shape beliefs and attitudes.  Religious texts can be found in support of almost any position and are tacked on as an afterthought.  This explains why Christians who love the Bible can trample on its core affirmations without a twinge of conscience.

CNN covers the story here; and Brian McLaren has some excellent thoughts here.

10 thoughts on “Torture and Religion

  1. It’s as if the idea of “finding the lost sheep”, or “Jesus came to save sinners, not the healthy”, mean nothing to many religous people. By any of our definitions, St. Paul was a terrorist, who was finally converted and became a great advocate for the salvation of all. What would we have lost if early Christians had killed him “in self-defense”, preemptive strike, or whatever? What are we losing now by killing so many “possible” terrorists, criminals, collateral damage persons, and incarcerating non-violent offenders.

  2. Alan–your observations are spot on. Evangelicals tend to be haters, not lovers; judgers, not tolerators; and avengers, not forgivers. Many of them are not that way of course, but those who are not tolerate injustices like torture because it’s easy to hate than it is to love and forgive.

    George Bush, a born-again Christian, is an excellent example. Even though the U.S. had been a party to the Geneva Convention since 1949, including Common Article 3 banning cruel treatment, torture and outrages on personal dignity, and these rules were a part of the Army Field Manual–and even though presidents since Lincoln had banned the use of torture–Bush declared that the Geneva Convention did not apply to prisoners at Gitmo in early 2002–which was WRONG, as declared by the most conservative Sup.Ct. in modern history in the Hamdan case, decided in 2006.

    After the Geneva Conv. had been abandoned, then the infamous Yoo and Bybee memos, authorizing waterboarding, slamming, sleep deprivation, freezing temps, sexual humiliation, etc, were the next step–and Bush authorized, condoned and tolerated them–until the Sups told him what EVERY DECENT LAWYER WITH ANY MILITARY EXPERIENCE already knew–and every soldier–that the Geneva accords apply to every prisoner in any international conflict!

    Bush, and the wasps around him, including Rumsfeld; Jim Haynes, his legal counsel; Gonzales; Yoo; now Judge Bybee; all of whom were “Christians”, became consumed with their own power, and as Nixon said about Watergate, figured that “if the president does it, it’s not illegal”. In short–they abandoned their legal compass, and had no moral compass whatsoever to guide them. It’s part of what’s wrong with the christian church. Jim Barber.

  3. If you study ancient religions, you will find that torture is a mainstay with those who claim to be christians. I studied ancient religions because I wanted to better understand how we got to were we are now. Boy did I get a surprise.

    Some of the most notable are connected to the Roman Catholic Church. (I was baptisted Catholic) For example, the distruction of the Knights Templar. Torture was utilized in order to get the truth.

    The Catholic Church coined witchcraft by insisting that older people were making wreaths of garlic to keep away vampires because they were witches or worlocks. The Church did this to maintain power by stating that the only thing that could keep vampires away was the cross. Hince, the Winston-Salem Witch Trials.

    Hitler convinced the Pope to stand by and say nothing about the cruel treatment, torture and mass murder of those of Jewish decent.

    I loath torture. For God sakes, common sense tells you that people will admit to anything to make the torture stop!!!

  4. In the military context, the debate on what constitutes torture is difficult for me. What are we allowed to do to prevent effectively, and consistent with our ideas of civilized behavior, further flaming mass murders in the thousands of our civilians by hate-filled religious fanatics who gleefully, and on video for publication, saw off the heads of civilians with half-sharp scimitars?

    To frame the issue jocularly in Newspeak 2009: “Is exposing a manmade-disasterist to celebutardation too cruel?” It is doubtful that forcing Mohammed Al Zabayda, Khalid Shayk Mohammed, or Achmed Ressam to watch old reruns of “The Simple Life” starring Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie is going to be effective, before we reach the issue of whether it is humane. Cruel on some level, to be sure, but not torture in any but the most colloquial and wry sense.

    I come from an Episcopal or Anglican background, cocktail religion also known as “Catholic Lite,”– all the ritual, but less than half the guilt. As an active soldier in the trenches against the death penalty and American (and especially Southern, where it is worse) over-incarceration, I believe that no one should be executed, period, and that 80% of the incarcerated do not belong there. A recent Pew study backs me up on the latter point. So there is no vengeful component whatsoever to my views on what should be done with those captured while trying to end our American way of life by the most vicious possible means.

    So it is from that perspective that, while supporting habeas corpus for all, I am prepared to allow some leeway on intensive interrogation methods in the military context if the damage done to the individual subjected to it is strictly of a psychological nature and contingent at that. I quickly fell in on the side that says waterboarding is torture, since clicking a gun on an empty chamber in the face of our military captive is considered torture. It is odd since no one seriously denies that the latter tactic is not allowed. Neither causes any physical harm to the subject. What they have in common is that the subject is convinced that he is going to die. Sen. John McCain, whose stint in the Hanoi Hilton gives him some credentials on torture, unhesitatingly termed waterboarding torture, see also “Chinese water torture.”

    Is the name “torture” enough, though, to say that America should never do it? Lao Tzu said with typical philological wisdom that “the name is but the guest of the reality.” Khalid Shayk Mohammed, who was never physically harmed nor impacted other than getting wet, was as hardboiled as they come, yet he drew us the organizational flow chart of Al Qaeda, the playbook, and the list of current and planned terror projects at a time when we had no idea how big they were, what resources they had, or what they were about to do next. Would we really rather endure a 911 attack equivalent or worse, such as a dirty bomb or suitcase nuclear explosion in one of our cities, because we would not do this again under any circumstances? Jesus was not beyond tying a rope to a stick and literally whipping the moneychangers out of the Temple. Was that torture? Wouldn’t it be today? Most of us of a certain age have endured unpleasantness in high school hazings which, by the standards applied to this debate, would be considered inarguably torture. Our own Temples, so to speak, are the symbolic targets of these worst kinds of terrorists (yes, I still use that word), and they laugh at our weakness when they see that these debates and the resulting policies have lost sight of reality.

    I find that there is too much emotion on both sides. Those who would punish out of vengefulness are wrong, and those who refuse to analyze our security issues rationally because they are rendered too emotional by buzzwords such as “torture” are also wrong. Some of them will not even allow a rational discussion of these issues, as they leap to a conclusion that those weighing them are “seeking an out for the torturers.” This reminds me of Alexander Hamilton’s comment that “Man, I think, is more a reasoning animal than a reasonable one, governed mainly by the passions.” While semantically I say waterboarding is torture, it is a far cry from legbreaking or kneecapping (see the Mafia), testicle smashing (see the Nazi SS), cutting off hands (see the late Shah of Iran), and feeding one’s extremities into a wood chipper (see the late Saddam Hussein and sons). Nothing that America has done in 100 years even comes close to such horrors, so to classify our military interrogation procedures with those of such monstrous groups and regimes is pure sophistry.

    Back to the topic of what we as a society are willing to do to our own, I was at a board meeting recently where we received a disturbing report. One of our most leading post-conviction death penalty attorneys was called to a meeting with the recently-confirmed, historic first female Chief Justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court, Catherine “Kitty” Kimball. She is a Roman Catholic; her induction ceremony was held at St. Louis Cathedral. When our member arrived for the meeting, it wasn’t only she, but the entire Louisiana Supreme Court in attendance. Their question, it turns out, was “What needs to happen so that we can execute more people faster?” It seems we have fallen far behind Texas, and Jacobin France, in the pace of our killing, and this is deemed highly unsatisfactory. Fortunately for our side, the bottleneck is not the defense, but the prosecution. So they are on their own, and when they rise to the challenge, so will we. To thwart them.

  5. This is all very disturbing. Why, Alan, is it not surprising that mainline Christians are less inclined to condone torture than their more “conservative” brothers and sisters. It should be surprising the other way around. “Evangelicals” supposedly have a higher view of scripture and should be expected to be more merciful that the more liberal mainliners. Something is amiss. I think that something is Constantinian Christianity. Christianity has become too intertwined with whatever Empire happens to be holding sway in any given century. Watching Bill Moyers Journal last night with Mark Danner and Bruce Fein on torture. Why should not those who thumbed their nose at the law be held accountable? Even if they are then pardoned as Fein suggested, at least they would be held accountable.

    The sad thing, to me at least, is that history is fraught with incidences of inhumanity in the name of God or for the protection of the Empire. And old Andrew Jackson just flat out ignored a Supreme Court ruling regarding a treaty with the Cherokee nation. He was not impeached. He was not prosecuted. The Republic survived, but not morally intact.

    Jerry, if St. Paul was a terrorist before his conversion, he was a subversive after.

  6. lI said Andrew Jackson ignored a SC ruling. It would be more accurate to say he defied it.

  7. This comment resonates because I am currently watching on video the A&E miniseries on Napoleon Bonaparte. It occurred to me that Bonaparte truly was a repetition of Julius Caesar, who accrued and parlayed glory-of-battle capital to make a decaying republic his empire. Bonaparte’s 1799 return to Paris after defeating the royalist emigre’ coalitions was his first crossing of the Rubicon.

    America also had such a figure who harnessed the glory of battle to concentrate all-defying power into himself. That, as Mr. Kiker intimates, was Andrew Jackson. George Washington could easily have done it first, but he was a moral man committed to the republic. Jackson was not.

    Riding high on the mob glory of the unnecessary Battle of New Orleans, Jackson led his armies into Spanish Florida without executive instruction to do so. The roars of approval in the street and marketplace were too loud for Congress and the presidency together to rein him in. Thus he destroyed Native resistance in Florida by destroying them. Early in the campaign he countermanded a duly-constituted military tribunal’s commutation of death sentence for a Scottish citizen found guilty of spying, and ordered the man hanged as was promptly done. So much for the rule of law.

    One of Jackson’s gunboats managed to lob a hot shot into the powder magazine of the British-abandoned “Negro Fort” on the Appalachicola River, thus blowing to smithereens a peaceful farming community of runaway slaves. Then he proceeded to the siege of Pensacola. Jackson snowballed far more than enough mob glory to continue rolling right into the presidency. Most know about the shameful Indian Removal Acts and the Trail of Tears. What Jackson actually said about the Supreme Court ruling in favor of the Cherokee was, “John Marshall made his decision; now let him enforce it.” Exactly what Caesar or Napoleon would have said. At the end of his two terms, Jackson hand-picked a successor, James Knox Polk, meant to start a war with Mexico and acquire California followed by Texas. Voila: empire, though a republican one, and headed at the time by a party of another name.

    Manifest Destiny was at its core a religious concept. The same bloodlust and mob impulse that bestows glory-of-battle power upon despots, though it cloaks itself in aspects of religion, clamors for more severe torture of our recalcitrant captives, more incarcerations for more newly-minted offenses, and more executions. Reason is the answer; it knows that this is not the way to be. One’s religion, to the extent it lacks reason, does not serve God.

    King Alexander

  8. I would take issue with the assertion that psychological torture is “less bad” than physical torture; mental scars last longer and can be much harder to heal.

    I know a US Army interrogator who says that torture doesn’t *work*–not if what you’re trying to get is information. He says that when he was trying to get people his unit detained in Iraq to talk, if he listened to every little thing the detainee said and compared it with what he already knew, he could get a lot of information from them without using harsh tactics at all. If he managed to get them talking about *anything*, he could get them to tell all. But if he started abusing them they would clam right up, which only made his job harder. Successful interrogation is a SKILL with big psychological aspects: a knowledge of how humans think, combined with understanding the situation you’re in and whether what the prisoner is saying matches up. Torture does not help.

    As far as KSM goes, from what I recall they found out later that most of what he’d told them wasn’t true. Which is another problem with torture: it doesn’t get consistently reliable results. And having a whole bunch of false information to sift through makes the job of intelligence gatherers harder, rather than easier. If you torture a guy into a confession and then go chasing after what he’s told you, and it turns out it was a wild-goose chase, you’ve just wasted a whole lot of time and energy. Wouldn’t it be better to take the time to interrogate him properly in the first place?

    (For the record I’m Anglican/Episcopalian too, though I grew up more Evangelical. It seems to me that sometimes Evangelicals are more invested in the idea that things are black and white, and tolerate ambiguity less well. Perhaps that leads to a “with us or against us” way of thinking, which in my experience makes it way too easy to de-humanize the other side–which is the first step along the road to both blowing up skyscrapers and torturing people. Certainly many Evangelicals don’t think this way, but maybe the quest for certainty makes it easier to fall into that kind of thinking.)

  9. Nenya, I agree with everything you say, unless it’s a misapprehension that I asserted psychological torture is “less bad” than physical. I made only a distinction and not a judgment. We can agree that in case of a survival dilemma, such a judgment must be made by the real Daubert-tested science hastily applied, after the question of whether coercion is useful at all.

    If little that KSM “shared” was really useful (some disagree), perhaps the only usefulness of any coercion is the chance of something in the desperate spew of words corroborating another source. If Jesus had not caught the moneychangers red-handed, would he have whipped some loiterers about the Temple until they confessed? We can’t see Him doing that; it is unreasonable, and, to paraphrase Dr. Alan Bean, it would trample core affirmations.

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