A recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center Forum on Religion and Public life reveals a disturbing statistic. According to the poll, nearly 62 percent of white evangelical Christians believe that torturing suspected terrorists is often or sometime justified. Of the total U.S. population, 49 percent believe torture is often or sometime justified.
The fact that this many people hold such views marks the failure of two great traditions which at one time were the foundation of American society.
The first is the failure of the ideals found in the U.S. Constitution. Our founding document was forged in the crucible of egregious abuse of human rights. Our forbears were victims of unrestrained political power that could incarcerate at will, without due process, without substantiation, and without limits.
The pain and suffering of real people at the hands of cruel tyrants were birth pangs that gave life to the genius that created our Constitution.
And the creators of this document realized they were not crafting rights for American citizens only. These were human rights they were defining and defending. It has long been the ideal of our constitutional practice that those who come into contact with our legal system, American citizens or otherwise, have certain inalienable rights.
The practice of torture demonstrates that we no longer hold these truths to be self evident.
The other great tradition laid waste by the practice of torture is the Christian faith. As demonstrated by the Pew Center study, a majority of Christians find no inherent contradiction between following Jesus and torturing another human being. Even among mainline Christian groups, that bastion of liberal theology, 46 percent say torture can often or sometime be justified.
Ask these Christians which is the greatest commandment. When Jesus was asked this question he replied “love God with all your heart, mind, and strength. And love your neighbor as yourself.”
In what parallel universe is it possible to have the ideal of loving our neighbors as a core ethical imperative while at the same time finding justification for torturing some of our neighbors?
How did we get here? The answer is complicated.
For a long time now, Christians on the left and the right have closely associated their faith with the American experience. Saving America has been the righteous cause of Christians since the founding of the republic.
Out of that nationalistic experience there has grown a sense that America is so important to the world that what ever means are needed to keep us alive are fully justified. Even if that means jettisoning every moral principle we hold dear.
The other part of our willingness to allow torture is a basic Protestant willingness to punish evil. Richard Snyder describes this phenomenon in his book “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Punishment.” Snyder notes that Protestants especially among Christian believers feel a certain responsibility to serve as agents of God’s wrath here on earth.
Combine a religiously charged nationalism with a sense of divine calling to execute wrath, and torture makes perfect sense.
Whether we can recover what we have lost of Constitutional idealism and a Christian ethic of love is not at all clear. Given the Pew study statistics, it does not look hopeful. If a large majority believes that torture is not only good for America, but also consistent with our faith, from where will come a convincing voice of challenge and dissent.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Alabama. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.