Why Do Christians Support Torture?

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The resilient foolishness displayed by many American Christians in supporting officially sanctioned torture is a source of enduring perplexity.

In an essay published in 2006 (“Grand Old [Torture] Party”), I observed that reasonable people would expect that “Christians, who worship as God Incarnate an innocent Man who was treated to every form of torment the perverse ingenuity of professional torturers could devise before giving His Life on our behalf, would have moral compunctions against authorizing any government to engage in torture.”

Earlier this year, my friend Thomas Eddlem, writing for AntiWar.com (“You Can’t Be A Christian and Tolerate Torture”) made essentially the same point:

“Americans – and especially Christians – need to recognize that torture by our own government is a far graver threat to liberty than a small number of wackos out in the world blowing themselves up in car bombs…. Terrorism is a manageable outside threat, but torture by our own government is a direct attack on the U.S. Constitution and the very fiber of liberty and our way of life.”Steve Waldman of BeliefNet now refines that question into a pointed query addressed to former Attorney General John Ashcroft, who never neglected an opportunity to focus public attention on his Christian beliefs.

“Mark Danner, author of a new book Torture and Truth, explains that CIA briefers regularly updated the National Security Council’s Principals committee which included Dick Cheney, Condelleezza Rice — and Ashcroft,” observes Waldman. “`As the interrogations proceeded, so did the briefings, with George Tenet, the CIA director, bringing to senior officials almost daily reports of the techniques applied.’ Many of the key memos justifying torture also went through Ashcroft.”

However, Ashcroft — whose exquisite sense of public propriety led him to correct the wardrobe malfunction in the “Spirit of Justice” sculpture displayed in the Justice Department’s Great Hall — never bestirred himself to object to torture as a crime against the laws of God and man.

“There’s no record of him challenging the practices on either practical or moral grounds,” Waldman points out. “We have no reports of him airing the Christian case against torture, which has even been embraced by moderate evangelicals and conservatives like Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention. (To torture someone made in God’s image is, they argued, counter to the message of the Bible).

On one occasion Ashcroft is reported to have asked: “Why are we talking about this in the White House? History will not judge this kindly.” But as Waldman points out, “his qualms seemed to be more about protecting the White House from blame than stopping the behavior.”

“I’m honestly perplexed: if ever there was a situation when we actually could have benefited from having a self-righteous, moral, Bible-reading, God-fearing Christian in the room to morally challenge utilitarian thinking, the discussions about torture would have been it,” Waldman concludes. “Perhaps John Ashcroft’s flaw was not that he was too Christian on the job but that he was not Christian enough.”

11:38 am on April 6, 2009