Evangelicals and Torture

Evangelicals and Torture September 28, 2017

Very fine work has been done by Luke Roberts in his bachelor’s thesis. Here’s a clip of some of his ideas posted at The Anxious Bench:

Conversations about national defense in 2017 reveal that, for many, the rules of war are not what they once were. This has been evidenced by calls for travel bans and drone strikes, but perhaps no area has seen as dramatic a shift due to the events of the 21st century as the practice of torture. Torture, long regarded as an enemy of modernity (Churchill compared it to cannibalism), is outlawed both domestically (Bill of Rights, The Torture Act) and internationally (UDHR, Geneva Convention). Yet the United States has tortured prisoners of war and suspected terrorists with an alarming regularity in the 21st century.

Many find torture appalling, but some see it as necessary. While torture as a practice of national defense has found support among a wide array of Americans, the demographic most supportive of the practice has been white evangelicals. A 2014 Washington Post/ABC News poll revealed that 68% of white evangelicals supported the torture of suspected terrorists. This finding was seemingly ratified two years later when white evangelicals overwhelmingly backed the presidential bid of Donald Trump, perhaps the most pro-torture presidential candidate in recent memory. But it isn’t just lay evangelicals who have come to support torture. Evangelical clergy and intellectuals have jumped aboard as well. Respected evangelical scholars Albert Mohler and Daniel Heimbach each publically defended torture in 2005 and 2010, respectively. Even James Dobson, the evangelical cultural icon, was critical of Senator McCain’s anti-torture stance in 2008.

While it’s well established that evangelical churches place a strong emphasis on the individual through doctrines like “a personal relationship with Jesus” and a focus on personal piety, along with practices of private prayer and Bible reading, there has yet to be a comprehensive reading of how individualism as a concept informs evangelical ethical discourse and academic theology. I believe that the ethic of individualism, pervasive in evangelical churches, is merely an overflow of the premises inherent in much of modern evangelical theology and ethics. To demonstrate this, let’s look to a defense of torture by one of the gatekeepers of American evangelical orthodoxy, Wayne Grudem.

In his book Politics According to the Bible, Grudem begins his discussion of torture by comparing it to the punishment of a child by a parent (431). He says that it can be conducted by an actor, the torturer, in a morally right or wrong way, just like a parent punishing a child. Where his argument becomes particularly telling is where he draws the line for torture. He claims that sexual abuse is always wrong and must therefore never be a part of the practice of torture (429). A moral category that evangelicals reject at the most basic level, sexual abuse as torture is a sin because the abuser is acting in a sexually aggressive, immoral way. While evangelicals may not reject the structural language that sexual abuse threatens the very social fabric of a culture, they primarily oppose sexual abuse because it is an inherently wrong thing for a person to do at the individual, personal level. If torture is merely the administration of pain, with no sexual abuse or otherwise immoral personal behavior involved, then this need not be the case. If, in Grudem’s conception, an act such as waterboarding is not an inherently sinful act by the individual administering it, then it should be allowed because any social threat it poses has been ignored.

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