March 17, 2008
— Martin E. Marty
No sooner had torture become national policy in the United States, religious leaders were rallying to denounce it. A day or two after the proposal opposing its legitimation was vetoed and thus defeated, Protestant, Evangelical, Muslim, and Jewish leaders coalesced to present critiques. "No sooner…" may not be quite accurate. Some religious groups had foreseen that a congressional minority, drawing on the fears of a frightenable nation and on the suspicions that led to a hunger for revenge against those who threatened security, might win. United Methodist leadership spoke up last October, the reinvigorated National Association of Evangelicals made its statement already a year ago this month, and prominent evangelical leaders spoke up last summer. The Catholic press likes to point out that Catholic social policy, also voiced by bishops in the U.S., always opposes torture. Most organized of the anti-torture voices was NRCAT, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, which immediately drew criticism from those who do not want to be called "pro-torture", but who are better referred to as "pro-torture-policy" advocates. Their case? They, the manifestly bad nations are doing it; and, the complaint goes, the NRCAT types are focusing on us.
Those who join now in the congregational, denominational, ecumenical, and inter-faith denunciations of the new U.S. policy are explaining why they seem to be or are late-comers to the scene. Washington Monthly is presenting attacks on the pro-torture policy by thirty-five leaders of all parties and stripes. Only two explicitly draw on Christian heritages and teachings, one of them being Richard Cizik of the N.A.E.: "The most powerful argument against torture is the Christian tenet that every human life is sacred. How can we say we are for the sanctity of human life, and then deny those God-given rights…As evangelical Christians, we have a non-negotiable responsibility to oppose a policy that is a violation of both our religious values and our national ideals."
Most Christians will say they have such a non-negotiable responsibility. You will read in the new religious critiques of water-boarding, a form of near-drowning that is a drowning; most who believe that humans are made in the image of God have trouble picturing how one can do such a thing to someone bearing that image, however marred and scuffed and bespattered with slime it may be. The main reason churches had not spoken up more, their ethicists say, is that it never would have occurred to them that this nation would imitate its worst enemies in this matter. Torture is something "we" did during Crusades, in the Inquisition, and when Catholics and Protestants united to "do it" to Anabaptists. But as centuries passed consciences formed, and torture became the instrument only of regimes that we considered barbarous and barbarian. Religious America, Christian America, did not have to take a stand. Now it is roused to do so. One may hope and pray that this weapon of torture will be used rarely and with restraint, but to the religious conscience, even a single legislatively licensed use is a violation.
Are "both sides" on this issue using it chiefly as a measure of support of or opposition against the administration's war and defense and anti-terrorism policies? One hopes that both sides will look past the current location of the issue in national politics, and reach for the depth of the theological issue. It might well touch the hearts and stimulate the minds of many who had not had to think about the matter before.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.
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