Friday, May 15, 2009

Torture and the Religious Right

I read the results of a recent survey on American opinion about torture. Apparently there has been lots of analysis of these results floating around the Internet. Here's the detail everyone's been making a big deal over:
  • Out of the entire US population, about 49% believe that torture can sometimes (34%) or often (15%) be justified.
  • Out of the regular church-attending US population, about 54% believe that torture can sometimes (38%) or often (16%) be justified.
  • Contrast this with the people who rarely or never attend religious worship: only about 42% believe that torture is sometimes (30%) or often (12%) justified.
The conversation that's been going on around the Net is pretty fascinating. Naturally, secularists are inclined to believe that this indicates a moral superiority of secularism over religion. I imagine some religious folks are inclined to simply defend their views as actually more moral.

But two points are worth mentioning. For one thing, about the same percentage of all groups (25%) believe torture is never justified. If purists are inclined to believe the only moral position is no torture at all, then religious folks are on par with secularist--and vice versa.

My second point is that the religious people in the survey only included white evangelicals, white mainline Protestants, white non-Hispanic Catholics, and the religiously unaffiliated. I am profoundly curious to see what minority groups think of this question.

In any case, the question is extremely delicate. One of my favorite conservative writers, Thomas Sowell, has written an article defending the use of torture using some pretty common sense language:
"What if it was your mother or your child who was tied up somewhere beside a ticking time bomb and you had captured a terrorist who knew where that was? Face it: What you would do to that terrorist to make him talk would make water-boarding look like a picnic...

But if the United States behaves that way it is called "arrogance"-- even by American citizens. Indeed, even by the American president."

Probably most evangelical Protestants buy into this kind of reasoning. Also, there is in theory some theological backing for this position. If you believe that evil is a real force in the world, one that requires strong resistance, then it follows that you might have to get your hands dirty to do that. Christians may look to the stories of the Old Testament as inspiration.

But I do worry about this correlation between evangelicals and this very conservative opinion on torture. If we take the power of Christ seriously, shouldn't we remember that evil doesn't conquer evil? We should be careful not to become what we hate.

I don't really think it's about whether or not poor little terrorists deserve to be tortured. That is sometimes what liberals sound like when they chastise Republicans for their war-mongering--Oh, we just need to reason with them, and they will be impressed and have a change of heart. There's more than a hint of arrogance in this kind of reasoning, and it annoys me, too, just like I'm sure it annoys a lot of conservatives who take the evil of terrorism seriously.

My concern is that when we humans participate in something like torture, it hurts us, not just the person being tortured. Evil hurts the person doing evil, on a deep, spiritual level. That is my concern for evangelicals--we can't ignore the evil we are inflicting on ourselves by hardening our hearts so solidly against our enemies. Evil is found in every human heart, and it is dangerous to feed whatever lurks in our own hearts.

My answer to the survey probably would have been "rarely" justified. I think it's dangerous to permit much more than that, though I see how those who do have reasons.

But I also find it a little arrogant, honestly, to be a purist on the issue and answer "never." I am quite certain that the vast majority of people who would answer "never" have never had to defend their family (or country) from violent assault, never seen how genuinely evil people can be (not that I have). "Never" just seems like the answer of proud liberalism, born out of the ability to intellectually analyze the issue without ever really facing it.

Whatever people's thoughts on the issue are, I'm pretty happy to see how diverse American opinion is. It certainly shows there's a lot of room for conversation.

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