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May 7, 2009

3

Christians & Torture: What are they ON?

by quaesitor

Thankful to my old friend Gareth Russell for this tip-off.pew-religion-tortureIf you’re in the UK, you may not have picked this little piece up, but CNN reported that in some research by the Pew Foundation, the American subgroup/subculture most likely to support the use of torture in the war on terror are EVANGELICALS!! This is what it said:

The more often Americans go to church, the more likely they are to support the torture of suspected terrorists, according to a new survey…

… The religious group most likely to say torture is never justified was Protestant denominations — such as Episcopalians, Lutherans and Presbyterians — categorized as “mainline” Protestants, in contrast to evangelicals. Just over three in 10 of them said torture is never justified. A quarter of the religiously unaffiliated said the same, compared with two in 10 white non-Hispanic Catholics and one in eight evangelicals.

Well I ask you. Reading that got me spitting. Jack Bauer has clearly won the battle for hearts and minds – and it would appear that the Christian right have become his most ardent fans.

But then, when you look at it carefully, you notice that (inevitably), the headlines are not 100% fair. For a start, the sample size for the whole piece of research is pretty tiny: only 742. America is such a VAST and diverse country that I doubt any small sample would ever really tell you what was going on in people’s heads.

And I would expect (hope) that there are wide variances in opinions even amongst regular, evangelical churchgoers, as a result of age, geography, education and employment levels. Then, please note that the stats are not that different (see right) – there is some variation at the blue end but it’s interesting how the ‘torture can often be justified’ is fairly static.

But of course, that won’t bother the “religion-is-dangerous” brigade. It’s all grist to their mill. Chris Scharen sums up how this has gone down in the secular world – not that we need necessarily change our views because of how they look – but in this instance, it makes one truly cringe. Here are one or two that Chris dug up:

The God they believe in couldn’t find any better way to offer salvation than to have himself tortured to death. With this kind of violence at the heart of their belief system, I’m not surprised that they think torture is OK.

This isn’t the evidence of a fundamental difference between morals of theists and non-theists that same commentators are trying to make it. Take a look again at those numbers. They say that, roughly 40% of atheists, 50% of Catholics and mainline Protestants, and 60% of evangelicals, support torture. That’s hardly a huge difference. And given the sample sizes the statistical error alone is +-5%.

The thing is this. What bothers me most is not so much that evangelicals came out on top or bottom (depending on how you look at it). Call me naïve, but what’s troubling me is that this is a debate amongst Christians at all. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, from a purely pragmatic point of view, it seems pretty clear that torture is pretty counter-productive (I linked to this fascinating article about Churchill vs Cheney in the last Q Treasure map). But more significantly, I don’t see how one can really justify physical torture ethically, even if one goes down a just war line. I’m no ethicist – and i’ve never really studied just war theory properly – but I can’t imagine that it contains scope for a doctrine of “just water-boarding”. Can you see Jesus doing that? Or am I just being naïve again?

So find myself totally chiming with how Christian Scharen concluded his post:

Okay, folks, if this doesn’t motivate us to (1) actually get serious about becoming the kind of people who love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us every week in church and (2) offering another version of Christianity in which Jesus’ crucifixion was God’s NO to torture, and our lives are not lived as ‘better than thou’ but ‘servant of thou’.  Because that version is not the loudest in our time.  The headline is, “Churchgoers like torture.”

Finally, while we’re on the theme, one of the most powerful moments in that epic series LOST was when Sayid, the former Iraqi torturer, is confronted by one of his victims. But he finds the only thing that can confront torture and deal with guilt: forgiveness. [The video was withdrawn from youtube because of copyright, so you’ll just have to buy the DVDs!]

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Mark Fletcher
    May 7 2009

    Thanks Mark, this was a fairly worrying piece of research, and I appreciated Christian Scharen’s conclusion.

    Reply
  2. Ros
    May 9 2009

    There’s also an issue in the categories used. If Presbyterians are included as ‘mainline’ rather than ‘evangelical’ (which makes more sense in the US), we have to recognise that the definition of evangelical there is not the same one we’d use in the UK.

    Reply
  3. May 9 2009

    too true, Ros – and of course it has a pretty malleable meaning in the UK too – not least in the Church of England

    Reply

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