An Evangelical Call on Torture and the U.S.

Four months have passed since a group of 17 prominent evangelical leaders and scholars issued “An Evangelical Declaration Against Torture: Protecting Human Rights in an Age of Terror.”

Writing “as Christians and U.S. citizens,” the authors declared:

“We renounce the resort to torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of detainees, call for the extension of procedural protections and human rights to all detainees, seek clear government-wide embrace of the Geneva Conventions, including those articles banning torture and cruel treatment of prisoners, and urge the reversal of any U.S. government law, policy or practice that violates the moral standards outlined in this declaration.”

Will everyone who has read this document, or even heard of it, please raise his hand?

Well, you’re forgiven. There are reasons, unfortunate perhaps but understandable, that the declaration hasn’t received the attention it deserves.

The USA and Torture

The record shows that America has both promoted and used torture, that the US government has fought against international anti-torture conventions, and that the USA in fact consistently violates international rules and conventions on a whole range of human rights issues.

Despite denials, attempts to change the definition of ‘torture,’ and evidence of secret CIA-operated prisons, US torture continues to be a problem around the world.

George Bush, who says he is a Christian, ought to stop lying long enough to ask himself this question: Who would Jesus torture?

Not that it went entirely unnoticed, particularly back in March, when the board of the National Association of Evangelicals all but unanimously endorsed it. This endorsement, by a body claiming to represent 45,000 evangelical Protestant churches with 30 million members, was quickly reported as another sign of an important shift in evangelicalism’s political stance. For several years, leading evangelicals have been pressing the movement to widen its public agenda to embrace issues like poverty and global warming alongside standing concerns about abortion, religious symbols in public spaces and sexual norms.

But in March, the declaration also drew immediate fire from other religious conservatives. Daniel R. Heimbach, a Southern Baptist professor of ethics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, called the evangelical declaration a “diatribe” that was “confused and dangerous,” mainly because it failed to pinpoint exactly where coercive interrogation crossed into torture.

Mark D. Tooley, a leader of the neoconservative Institute on Religion and Democracy, quickly dismissed the declaration as the work of “pseudo-pacifist academics and antiwar activists” who were contributing to “a barely disguised crusade against the U.S. war against terror.”

The initial flurry of attention has died down, although people who want to use the declaration for church or classroom discussions continue to download it from the Web site

One might cynically suggest that the original publicity might have been greater if the declaration’s drafters had stuck in a phrase about excommunicating politicians who hedge on safeguards against torture.

But the “Evangelical Declaration Against Torture” is just not that kind of document. How Professor Heimbach can read it as a “diatribe” is hard to imagine.

In fact, reading it is much like watching the construction of a high-rise. At each level, the concrete is poured and left to harden before the workers move on to the next floor.

For the 17 drafters, the declaration’s foundation was “the sanctity of human life, a moral status irrevocably bestowed by the Creator upon each person.”

From this “core Christian belief that human life is sacred,” the drafters proceeded with biblical warrants and philosophical reasoning to an extended and nuanced examination of human rights, “including the rights of suspected terrorists.”

The declaration acknowledges that many conservative Christians have become wary of human rights language because “many troublesome agendas are punctuated with ‘rights-talk.’ ” The solution, however, “is not to abandon talk of rights,” the authors said, but “to clarify the range of legitimate rights-claims.”

The declaration also counters the “common misunderstanding” that human rights are strictly an Enlightenment notion. The roots of the concept go “as far back as the 12th century,” the drafters wrote, and can be traced from the 17th century to today through a variety of Christian positions.

Only after constructing these several levels of argument does the declaration move on to questions of individual, religious and state responsibility for the protection of rights, and from there to the post-Sept. 11 situation and the national debates about torture, treatment of detainees and requirements of national and international law.

The declaration strongly commends the recent changes in the Army Field Manual specifying forbidden practices. It criticizes the Bush administration’s successful effort, in the Military Commissions Act signed last October, to exempt the C.I.A. from such prohibitions and from much judicial and Congressional oversight, and to limit habeas corpus, loosen rules on the use of evidence and allow indefinite detention of those the administration designates unlawful enemy combatants.

These provisions, the declaration says, “violate basic principles of due process” and “create the conditions in which further prisoner abuse is made more likely.”

As with any statement by religious leaders, one can always ask, “Does it make any difference?”

The most recent issue of the quarterly Review of Faith and International Affairs contains an analysis by John C. Green of polling on torture and terrorism conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2004, 2005 and 2006. A slight majority of the public held that torture of “suspected terrorists in order to gain important information” could “never” or “rarely” be justified; Dr. Green, a leading scholar of religion and public affairs polling, called this “restrictive” views on torture.

Dr. Green contrasted these with the “permissive” views of people who said that torture could “often” or “sometimes” be justified to gain information from terrorists.

The survey found that in every religious group, those who said they worshiped weekly appeared more restrictive toward torture than less observant believers, although the difference was modest. Dr. Green considered this finding “a bit counterintuitive” because weekly worshipers “tend to be more Republican, conservative and supportive of the Bush administration than their co-religionists” — traits otherwise associated with more permissive attitudes toward torture.

Not surprisingly, the poll data showed that white evangelicals were somewhat more permissive toward torture than other religious groups. But in Dr. Green’s fine-grained effort to sort out religious identity and weekly worship from other factors like party identification, political ideology and views on the Iraq war, white evangelicals also appeared the most likely to have their views modified on religious grounds alone.

Does this mean that “An Evangelical Declaration Against Torture” is a potentially influential document? Its original authors and the scores of significant evangelical leaders who have signed on to it along with the National Association of Evangelicals obviously hope so. But this is also an act of conscience, to which they were compelled regardless of its impact.

“What we developed was a pretty sizable teaching document,” writes David P. Gushee, a professor of moral philosophy at Union University and the principal drafter of the declaration, who has compared it to a papal encyclical. But in the end, he said, the drafters’ motivation was simply “to bear Christian witness.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday July 24, 2007.
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