Misrepresenting Christians and torture

torture 01Last month, Catholic writer and blogger Eve Tushnet urged us to write more about coverage of the religious debate over the Bush administration’s policies regarding torture. For weeks, I looked in vain for the press’ treatment of the issue, which has fallen into eclipse. But then evangelicals inaugurated an annual conference about torture and the neo-conservative publication The Weekly Standard wrote about it. Now I had something to write about.

As you might guess, writer Mark D. Tooley was not impressed with the conference. He depicted it as little more than a political gathering of liberals rather than as a meeting of religious people opposed to torture and the administration’s policies. As he writes in the lede,

Primarily organized by the Evangelical left, a summit called “Religious Faith, Torture and Our National Soul” convened in Atlanta on September 11 to inveigh against the Bush administration’s allegedly pro-torture policies.

Evangelicals for Human Rights President David Gushee was the summit’s chief organizer. A Christian ethicist at Mercer University, Gushee helped persuade the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) last year to endorse his evangelical manifesto against torture. The manifesto, along with intensified interest in Global Warming, has marked the NAE’s shift to the left. Gushee and other leaders within NAE also represent the increasingly predominant Evangelical Left within evangelical academia, where the traditional Religious Right is shunned as an embarrassment.

Gushee’s NAE-backed manifesto, like the Atlanta summit, largely avoid any definition of “torture” but widely assumed that the United States is a routine and pervasive practitioner of it. And although ostensibly focused on inhumane interrogation techniques, the religious anti-torture campaign seems to represent a wider opposition to the wars of the Bush administration.

Skepticism about a religious-and-political event held less than two months before a presidential election is always warranted. So Tooley can be forgiven for concluding that that organizers and its participants had political goals in mind.

Yet Tooley goes too far: He assumes that the conference had no religious goals in mind. Where Tooley sees only base political motives, he should have seen complexity and nuance, not to mention religion.

For example, does the opposition to torture really represent a turn to the left? Or does it not simply represent a turn to traditional Christianity? After all, a core Judeo-Christian teaching is that humans are not means to an end. Or might the opposition to torture represent an embrace of liberal Christianity, with its goal of human autonomy?

To his credit, Tooley does not eschew nuance altogether. He quotes a critic who raises good questions about anti-torture advocates:

Among those critics is Keith Pavlischek from the Ethics and Public Policy Center, who has accused Gushee and many of his anti-torture activist colleagues of a soft pacifism that disregards the state’s vocation to uphold justice and defend the innocent. Himself an Iraq War veteran and Christian ethicist, he noted Gushee’s reluctance to define torture, telling the Atlanta Journal Constitution: “I want to push up against the boundary of that. Why, because I am sadistic? No, because I want to protect innocent people.” Terror suspects do not qualify for the same protections afforded U.S. citizens and lawful combatants, he said. “In between are a continuum of interrogation techniques that I believe are morally and legally permissible, that are aggressive, that are short of torture,” Pavlischek insisted.

This is fair. According to the Atlanta-Journal Constitution‘s story about the conference, at least one evangelical pastor agrees that the definition of torture is ambiguous.

Yet Tooley’s story lacks not only sufficient nuance but also sufficient fairness.

For example, Tooley misrepresented conference organizer David Gushee’s comments about John McCain. Try this contrast. Here is Tooley’s version of Gushee’s remarks:

According to Associated Baptist Press, Gushee chided John McCain, who opposes affording terror suspects the same rights as U.S. citizens and lawful combatants, as “grievously disappointing to all who follow this battle for our national soul.” And he encouraged Barack Obama to “make torture a moral and, in fact a religious issue–a values issue” that will help him “communicate to religious Americans–and especially to evangelicals.”

And here are Gushee’s remarks as reported by the Associated Baptist Press:

“My message to [Illinois] Sen. Barack Obama … is that you have an opportunity to make torture a moral and, in fact a religious issue–a values issue,” said Gushee, who teaches Christian ethics. “This is in your interest, because you are trying to communicate to religious Americans–and especially to evangelicals.”

But he warned Obama not to soft-pedal the torture issue in his campaign speeches for fear of alienating middle-of-the-road voters. “I say: Say more about the issue of torture and not less,” Gushee said. “Don’t run away from the issue.”

For McCain, the veteran Arizona senator who endured years of torture while he was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, Gushee had different advice. “I say to Sen. McCain: Make the tie between your personal narrative and your policy stance on human rights perfectly clear,” he said.

Gushee, noting that two-thirds of those in the poll who said they were supporting McCain also support torture, added, “Tell your own voters why they are wrong on this issue, and why you are committed to the positions that you have articulated since 2002-2003 on the issue of torture.”

During a question-and-answer session, Gushee said he was disappointed with McCain’s actions on specific legislation earlier this year that seemed to indicate he was backtracking on his previous anti-torture stance. Gushee said one vote in particular was “grievously disappointing to all who follow … this battle for our national soul.”

Nonetheless, the professor said, McCain’s original position on torture is more in line with the candidate’s overall message.

“It fits entirely with [McCain's] vision of national honor, it fits entirely with his vision of the discipline and grandeur of the U.S. military,” Gushee said. “I think his whole appeal–his whole stated appeal–for his candidacy is a maverick who stands up for what is right. And I want him to be who he says he is.”

To me, the ABP story sounds like Gushee chided Obama, too, not just McCain.

Nuance about and fairness toward religion and religious people — those are supposed to be two values not only of journalists, but also conservatives. Tooley’s story simply failed to embody those.

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  • http://www.geocities.com/hohjohn John L. Hoh, Jr.

    This was certainly a political piece on a religios topic. I would imagine most Christians are against torture. Another question that I didn’t see discussed is what constitutes torture. There seems to be that fine line between interrogation and torture.

    I suspect one would find similar divisions among Christians regarding the war in Iraq and war in general.

  • Dan Crawford

    One does not read The Weekly Standard for unbiased reporting, so I’m not so sure what the fuss is all about. Tooley is an ideologue who supports the Administration’s use of torture and thus it should come as no surprise that he writes as he does.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mark Stricherz

    Dan Crawford writes,

    One does not read The Weekly Standard for unbiased reporting, so I’m not so sure what the fuss is all about.

    Can not the same be said of any magazine, indeed any newspaper?

  • Jerry

    I concur with your analysis of torture. Too often we see things mixed together that should be considered separately. The first is the ethics/moral free “does it work” argument. The second question is whether or not something is moral or not and that should be based for Christians on what scripture said that is relevant. And that should be part of any story – do the people who are religious know what scripture says? I’m not saying there are no theological disagreements, because there are, but a religious person’s morals are supposed to be government by their sense of right and wrong as informed by their religion.

    On another note, I was interested to find that the wikipedia article on torture does not even mention the use of scripture of any religion in shaping what people’s moral attitudes should be to torture. There’s a clear opening for someone to upgrade that article.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    I, too, have been distressed by the lack of mainstream coverage of torture and religious angles.

    But The Weekly Standard is not mainstream media.

    And while all magazines and newspapers may struggle with reporting in an unbiased fashion, The Weekly Standard never claims to be unbiased. The New York Times, The Washington Post, etc. do present themselves as mainstream news outlets.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    The biggest problem I have as a Catholic against torture is trying to figure out what any given anti-torture group or activist considers as torture. Most seem reluctant or outright refuse to give an answer with any real specificity.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Deacon:

    This issue is being discussed without common definitions of what is and is not torture. That is an issue that should be debated in hearings — with inputs from people on all sides — in an open forum for the public to see and hear.

  • Dave

    Jerry, scripture says we are all created in God’s image, and that Jesus said whatever is done to the least of us is done to him. It’s not difficult to build a scriptural case against torture.

  • Jerry

    Dave, I agree with you personally. But I’ve also read such sources as http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?id=7390&CFID=12619973&CFTOKEN=90201783 which offer a bit of a different view. So I was trying to write not from my personal beliefs but from a knowledge of various interpretations.

    Deacon, there are great definitions of torture out there such as the Geneva Conventions and the Army Manual on Interrogation. For example:

    The use of force, mental torture, threats, insults, or exposure to unpleasant and inhumane treatment of any kind is prohibited by law and is neither authorized nor. condoned by the US Government. Experience indicates that the use of force is not necessary to gain the cooperation of sources for interrogation. Therefore, the use of force is a poor technique, as it yields unreliable results, may damage subsequent collection efforts, and can induce the source to say whatever he thinks the interrogator wants to hear. However, the use of force is not to be confused with psychological ploys, verbal trickery, or other nonviolent and noncoercive ruses used by the interrogator in questioning hesitant or uncooperative sources.

    That is sufficient specificity for me.

  • Thomas R

    I consider myself as pretty strong against torture, but there’s a part of me that’s not sure how you can do an interrogation without threats or insults of any kind. And somehow insults, unless they’re very extreme, just isn’t what I think of as torture. I’m not even sure Christianity even means that you can never insult anyone. It seems like Jesus, and some of the Apostles, did say pretty insulting things to the Pharisees or am I misremembering?

  • Bern

    As for what torture actually is, don’t we all know it when we see it? And from a religious point of view it is certainly wrong when practiced one person against another. The parsing seems to come when a state or government is involved. Maoists, Stalinists, and Baathists all saw nothing wrong, indeed defended as absolutely necessary, engaging in “interrogation” or “punishment” of opponents/enemies using these “aggressive” tactics. However, when U.S. forces or those acting on behalf of the U.S. do the same it is morally defensible–or at the least, neutral (i.e., we have to to get the information we need to protect the innocent). From the Christian side, didn’t Jesus say “Love your enemies. Do good to those that hate you?”

  • Dave

    I consider myself as pretty strong against torture, but there’s a part of me that’s not sure how you can do an interrogation without threats or insults of any kind.

    You take some time, engage them in conversation, get inside their heads, try to learn their motivation and grievances, and get the conversation around to what you want to know. If they are under your control you’re in a position to be the only person they’re allowed to talk to. (Note that the excerpt cited does not define isolation as torture.) We are social creatures, and sooner or later we will interact with the only person we’re given to interact with.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    From the discussions I have heard and read there is a very loose use of the word “torture” among many people. So often the argument against “torture” seems to deteriorate into considering any technique of interrogation one personally doesn’t like as automatically “torture.” Maybe the first order of business in any debate on “torture” should be to take time to agree on a common definition or description of what practices “torture” includes.
    It is amazing to me how often the word “torture” is loosely used and thrown around in the MSM as if everyone is agreed on what practices to get information from caught terrorists are to be considered “torture.”

  • Thomas R

    You take some time, engage them in conversation, get inside their heads, try to learn their motivation and grievances, and get the conversation around to what you want to know. If they are under your control you’re in a position to be the only person they’re allowed to talk to. (Note that the excerpt cited does not define isolation as torture.) We are social creatures, and sooner or later we will interact with the only person we’re given to interact with

    You make a good point. I guess my mind tends to go to “cruel and unusual punishment” when it thinks of torture. So waterboarding and weird sexual propositioning certainly fits, but shouting or calling-names not so much. Maybe that’s an American or cultural thing.

  • Dave2

    Dan Crawford wrote:

    One does not read The Weekly Standard for unbiased reporting, so I’m not so sure what the fuss is all about.

    To which Mark Stricherz replied:

    Can not the same be said of any magazine, indeed any newspaper?

    Mark, are all news sources equally biased, in your view? From the New York Times and the Washington Post to National Review and Mother Jones to Der Stürmer and Pravda? I mean, surely there are distinctions and rankings to be made here. And do you really think that The Weekly Standard is as ideologically neutral as they come? Right up there with Reuters and the AP wire? Honestly.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mark Stricherz

    Dave 2 makes a good point: not all news sources are equally biased. Some are more biased than others.

    That said, the mainstream or culturally liberal publications you mention are not reliable disseminators of truth about cultural issues. (Yes, the problem is THAT bad.) Take the issue of homosexual marriage. While the mainstream media’s stories have been one-sided, the Weekly Standard published an authoritative story on the consequences of gay adoption. Then again, the Standard’s story about Christians and torture was poor.

  • Dave

    [...T]he Weekly Standard published an authoritative story on the consequences of gay adoption.

    Could we get a link on that, please?


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