Monday, May 04, 2009

Christian Torture?

Last week, the Pew Forum released a poll which showed white evangelical protestants as believing that torture can sometimes be justified.  Sixty two percent of white evangelicals believe torture is often, or sometimes, justified; 18% often, 44% sometimes.

That figure outstrips the general US demographic by 10% and other Christian demographics by anywhere from 19%-12%. That a significant difference. We're talking double digits, here.

The question is...why?

An easy answer would be to say that evangelical Christians are violent, war-hungry people. While I am sure Richard Dawkins is probably all over that answer, I think it's too facile. Evangelical Christianity comes in a wide variety of flavors and is not so easily pinned down.

From a religious perspective, I can offer some thoughts about the difference. The general pathos of evangelical Christianity is consumed with what is perceived as a great battle between good and evil. Preachers pounding the drum beats for culture wars tend to use emotional, dramatic illustrations which can feed the sense of conflict between Christians and "the world". Throw in a few End Times seminars and you have the interesting dynamics of concerned urgency and desensitization to violence.

Evangelicals are used to thematic violence. They live with the concept of Hell hovering in the background. They have a Bible full of violent stories. Violence, in and of itself, is not necessarily counter-intuitive to evangelicals. This doesn't mean they beat their kids, or get into fist-fights with their neighbors. It doesn't mean they view violence as the solution in normal circumstances. It does mean that they can see the use of violence to forestall some greater tragedy as justifiable.

The example most of them would use would be of a terrorist with knowledge about an imminent attack capable of killing thousands of people.  In such a situation, one man's pain and discomfort is a small price to pay for saving thousands--a single act of violence to save many.

That's the general theme of Christ's it's not too foreign of an idea to be co-opted for some other "higher purpose".

The irony is that it was Jesus' enemies who declared that "it was better for one man to perish, than for the nation to perish.(John 11:50)" While Jesus ultimately fulfilled that prophecy, in a spiritual way Caiphas couldn't understand, the earthly sentiment was hardly born out of pure motives or courage. Instead, it was motivated by fear of the Romans taking away the place of the priesthood and the nation.

Another reason why evangelical protestants scored so much higher is probably related to the balance of power they hold. I would venture to say that most white, evangelical protestants have never been on the opposite side of a power imbalance. They have never been oppressed or had relatives who were systematically discriminated against, or been the victim of real, physical persecution. 

For most of them, the question of torture is an intellectual exercise that has no connection with reality. They don't know how horribly torture might feel. They are not thinking about the lasting damage the torture may cause. They are not considering the fact that the torturee might not have the information the authorities need. They are not the ones who will ultimately be doing the torturing, having to face the humanity of the recipient. It would be interesting to see if the numbers would stay the same if some of us had to do more than simply have opinions about it.

I'd guess those numbers would drop significantly. Evangelicals might theoretically support the use of torture, but would they be willing to administer it....or to have their grown children administer it? No, I think it would be more likely that most evangelicals would go the way of Pilate, washing their hands of the responsibility, while assigning someone else to the task.

When viewed from that perspective, I'm not sure how true the numbers are, or at least how strongly the percentages represent a firm conviction about torture that wouldn't collapse in on itself in the face of reality.

In addition, I wonder how the sample of evangelical Christians was broken down.  If, for instance, most of the respondents came from a particular region, such as the South, it is possible that their cultural views, outside of specific evangelical views, could have skewed the numbers.

I think it would be unfair to say that evangelicals are more violent than other people.  To play devil's advocate, I could imagine evangelicals proposing that liberals are more violent because they believe women have the right to kill their unborn children. If you concede that a fetus is a living human being, yet believe that there are justifiable reasons to allow a woman to end its life....I'm not sure that there can be much finger-pointing about the response to this poll.

It's all in how you spin it.

Should evangelicals support the use of torture?  No, they shouldn't.  It's a murky area in which grave mistakes could be made. 

We shouldn't weaken our moral convictions in the face of fear.


Anonymous said...

I'm sure the answer to this is too complex to sum up in a brief post, but the fact that torture is not real to most people is not an excuse. Liberals don't have everyday experience with torture, but they oppose it because it is immoral. The question is why conservative Christians support torture more than other blocs of people.

The bible has lots of violent stories, but also lots of peaceful ones. Some people gravitate only to the violent ones for lessons.

I was flipping the TV the other day and came across some preacher who was reading from Ezekiel 16 about Sodom, and he said that the passage demonstrates that God punished Sodomites because they were perverse, which he said meant "gay." But if he had read a few verses down, he could have read that God in that passage defined Sodom's sin as inhospitality and lack of social justice. I'm sure he knew what the passage said, but chose to ignore it and misled his listeners on purpose.

But people who read the bible literally and rejoice over God's violent acts in the Hebrew bible and long for violence to punish evildoers in the future, well, torture is part of their DNA, so to speak.

BTW, the executioners of Jesus did NOT declare the part about it being better for one man to perish. Allegedly the Jewish leaders said that, (and they would have been right if Jesus was preaching the overthrow of the Romans, whether by military or supernatural might). Jesus was executed by the Romans, who crucified political enemies.


terri said...'re right. I should reword the "executioners" term to be more accurate. I wasn't thinking of the literal executioners, but the ones who started the whole thing rolling.

As far as "liberals" my point is that the liberal base tends to have more minorities and more women.....two groups of people who have perhaps a more personal view of injustice than a group of white males of the same size.

Retriever said...

Anonymous, you made a very good point about "for the sake of the nation, one must die". I am curious why you don't adopt a pen name?

As to us ferocious evangelicals... I belong to a northeastern evangelical Congregational church made up mostly of former Episcopalians (like myself), Catholics, and UCC types who chose to join it because it was more evangelical than the mainstream churches. We spend a lot of time in prison ministry, projects in Africa and Central America, work with a residential treatment center for kids, teach English to immigrants, divorce ministry, support to the bereaved, and support a Christian rehab group home. To name a few. I don't know any evangelicals who rejoice over the violence in the Old Testament or over the death of sinners. I worship the God of John 3:16.

I don't think any of us support torture, although we believe that terrorists should be punished and that interrogation is necessary to extract information that may prevent future butchery. As far as I have read, torture is not only immoral,but is ineffective at getting accurate intelligence.

Anonymous said...

retreiver, I had a sign-on, but I forgot the password and google won't let me make up a new one without making up a new email account. I'm not that internet savvy, but I will make up a new one eventually.

I don't say that every Christian is bloodthirsty. I attend a church sounds like is a lot like yours. But on average, as is borne out by polls, Christians are a lot more prone to be in favor of violence than other groups of people. The most popular evangelical leaders are pro-violence neanderthal cretins like James Dobson and Tim LaHaye. What does that say about the religion? I don't think it is good.

And of course you don't rejoice over the deaths of unknown people many thousands of years ago. But do you accept them as "God's will"? If God was always ordering people to kill each other, as he did in the Hebrew Bible, then what does that say about God? Is it the same deity as the one in John 3:16? And the hope for the future (if you put any credence in the Bible) is the end of time, when God repeatedly kills large chunks of the population. Do you think that is a good thing?

I'm not saying you will be thrilled at the actual deaths, whether they are drowned, burned or bombed. But on some level christians have to accept violent death as part of God's plan, and they worship God, who is doing the killing.


Chris said...

I wouldn't be so sure that it's fear that leads to a theoretical support of torture. Pragmatism would dictate that you not rule out any method when faced with a horrible moral dilemma, such as the ticking bomb scenario.

Almost no one has any real experience with torture, or has any thought that they or someone they care about will have to perform it, or even undergo it. Theoretical support or opposition is all that nearly everyone can muster. Liberals, in general, are more concerned with how they feel about an issue, therefore it is not surprising that more of them are theoretically opposed. Conservatives, in general, are more concerned with what would be practical, so why rule out a practice that you might conceivably need, even though you might personally be sickened by its practice?

A lot of life decisions are murky and ill-defined, so I'm not sure that is the best criteria to use as a moral compass. If I believed that my children's lives were at stake, I'm pretty sure I could and would torture someone. The question becomes, do I think that their lives are at stake, or not. People are forgetting that decisions such as these were made by our leaders in a time of great uncertainty, after the largest mass-murder in American history. It's easy and tempting to second-guess those decisions now, when less seems to be at stake, but we don't really know that's the case, do we?

Anonymous said...

So, Chris, conservatives are willing to torture if it is practical.

I'm trying to think of something snarky to say but you just damned them better than I could. Thanks for pointing out the moral bankruptcy of the conservative movement.

Cause when I watched "Schindler's List" or "Andersonville" or "Hogan's Heroes," I thought the torturers were the bad guys. We invaded Iraq and spent $3 trillion because -- gasp -- Saddam had torture rooms. Turns out he was just being practical.

Thanks for clearing that up.


terri said...


I'm not sure if I agree with your description of the differences between Liberals and Conservatives. I think that both segments use emotional arguments borne from their feelings about a given situation. They just differ in what issues they are being guided by feelings.

Perhaps there is a pragmatic side to it...but most of the arguments I hear are based purely in the fear of "the ticking time bomb" scenario.

I agree with your assessment that some of our current policies were made after a very frightening/traumatic experience.

The problem is that we can't say for certain what effect those policies have had. You could say, "well nothing's they must work"...but that doesn't necessarily mean that it's true...or is directly tied to all of those policies.

I tend to be equally balanced between being an idealist and a realist.

In this case, I lean heavily toward idealist. We are protecting what it means to be a US citizen...what it means to believe in freedom and self-evident truths about life and liberty.

When I think of us making questionable choices to protect the US...I see it as becoming like our enemies....destroying the principles we most believe in..while we think we are protecting them.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Anonymous: p

Chris didn't say that. I will ask you straight out: do you believe that your statement is a fair representation of what he actually said or are you playing with his words in order to score rhetorical points? In other words, are you being facetiously obtuse, or are you actually that obtuse?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

And now to the actual post.

The coalition of the left is considerably more violent than the right in this country. Think union thugs. Think anti-globalization protesters. Think ELF, animal-rights, and minority activist groups. The progressives in the mix are a "clean hands" group, not engaging in violence themselves but excusing it in their allies. That seems rather convenient to me.

Yes, of course the stereotype is that the right is more violent, because y'know, guns, and, and, military and, well, y'know, everyone just knows that. But Democratic strongholds are not always the nicest places to walk alone at night, dig?

As to supporting torture, it depends very much what people mean and how the question is worded. Nonetheless, it may be that religious people of some category are more tolerant of violence against wrongdoers. This may be less a bloodthirstiness than a belief that some people really are serious wrongdoers.

Then there's the 200,000,000 killed by the officially atheist ideology so popular (and so frequently defended by the American left) in the last century.

Anonymous said...

Chris's entire post was a defense -- at the very least a justification -- of torture. Out of context? OK, let's go to the quote:

I said: "conservatives are willing to torture if it is practical. "

He said: "Conservatives, in general, are more concerned with what would be practical so why rule out a practice that you might conceivably need, even though you might personally be sickened by its practice?"

If you think I took that out of context, you must be the assistant to the Assistant Village Idiot.

Of course, complaining that I took Chris out of context is downright brilliant compared to your next post. You say that animal rights activists, union members and environmentalists are more violent than the assorted right wing neo-Nazis and patriot movement types?

Stereotype? Just in the last few months, some guy down south shot up a group of hispanic college students (killed four) a couple months ago because he thought they were illegals, a guy who idolized Glenn Beck went on a killing spree after spouting nonsense about socialism, another guy shot a bunch of people at a unitarian church in Tennessee because he hates liberals and this week somebody shot a Wesleyan college student because he hates Jews, according to the police. That's just recently what I can recount off the top of my head. I won't even mention Timothy McVeigh, Eric Rudolph, etc.

Please, stop doing the word "idiot" a disservice and think before you write.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Whoa, whoa. Your jump from Chris's comment about a practice that might sometimes be justified, to the "moral bankruptcy" of conservatives is a completely unwarranted leap. All tigers are cats, but not all cats are tigers. You are taking very convenient extensions along a continuum and pretending they are the same. Throwing in Nazis, Saddam, etc, is a signal that you don't care about whether things are actually the same, just whether you can make them sound the same if you sorta kinda squint. You will find many people who will agree with you that the exaggerations are in fact equivalents, but that doesn't make it so.

You might hesitate yourself to speak. I do have experience with tortured people, from two different categories: children that were tortured by their parents, and Eastern European religious dissenters. I am very clear on what words actually mean in this land, not relying on your rather emotive and superficial categories.

As to my next comment - yes. Yes, I am absolutely saying the left is more violent, and your own examples support me. If someone shoots up Unitarians or illegals and you figure they must be conservatives, not crazy people, then I suppose Columbine and shooting up the HS prayer circle in KY must be liberals. Your emotive connections of who is a conservative have no relevance.

I have also treated two of the medium-profile national cases of "hate crime" and can assure you they were schizophrenic, not political. Even though there were candlelight vigils and speeches about tolerance. The associations you make are common, but not founded.

You might try and find what neo-nazi (arguably conservative, though the ones I've met were big on universal health care) violence is actually occurring in America, and what militia violence is actually occurring, before being quite certain that union or environmentalist violence is less.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Actually, I can make this clearer.

Stealing is wrong. Is stealing to feed your starving family wrong? Is it wrong enough that the punishment should be hanging, as it has been by law in many times and places?

We might have enormous admiration for a man who was of such fine moral character that he would not steal, even in an unfair society which would not allow him to work honestly, even to feed his family, even if it's only small amounts. But we might also say that such a man was being morally obtuse, unable to see a larger picture for the sake of adherence to rules that are supposed to be general.

At a minimum, I don't think most people would condemn the person as morally bankrupt. If he gave as his excuse that this was the only practical way he could see to feed his family we would not compare him to Al Capone.

We should not drive over the speed limit or run stop signs. We should not hit other people. We should not blow up things in other people's countries. We might all find situations in which we thought such actions were not very bad; were, in fact, the only practical responses a person might make. We should not commit adultery, but if I had been in an apocalypse and thought my wife had died, I might break that rule after a decade or so.

We should not be insulting, yet I hope I have made this so mind-numbingly simple that even anonymous could get it. Actually, I think I will hope the reverse. I hope my insult is so enraging that anonymous becomes even more unable to think with any moral clarity and makes increasingly stupid comparisons, to such an extreme degree that he eventually realises he has been a fool and is willing to consider the possibility that it is not lack of intelligence, but bigotry and arrogance that have brought him to this pass.

Chris said...

Well, that certainly stirred the pot. Thanks, AVI, for standing in for me. I guess the word "theoretical" was too arcane for some to grasp its application to the matter at hand.

Buz said...

Anon, I have heard this comment about Sodom several times, however, in Eze 16:50, it says "they were haughty AND did perverse things" ... so it was not just their arrogance and unconcern, it was that PLUS their perversity. AND, in Jude 1:7 it says "Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire" which is what that preacher may have been referring to ... not misleading his listeners.