May 4, 2009
— Martin E. Marty
Writing from Paris: If I were Czar of Catechetics, unlikelily appointed to help set the agenda for instruction and discussion among adult church-goers in America, I'd assign the topic of torture. With English-language print media piling up thousands of transatlantic miles from where I write, and my reading of French just slow enough to hinder the writing of weekly columns, I've had to live with what the internet brings; among other things it has brought this week is news of high-level, both blithe and aggressive, support of torture.
This support does not even always come under disguised names -- as in "We Don't Torture," from a former vice-president of the United States. My search instrument, fed the simple words "Cheney Defends Torture," brings up 400,000 references. Thousands of them refer to daughter Liz Cheney's aggressive televised defense of her father's defense of torture, practiced in the previous administration but rejected currently. We read of exchanges among Mr. Cheney and other senators in committee hearings chaired by Senator Diane Feinstein, including a vehement over-and-back between Mr. Cheney and Senator John McCain, who knows a few thousand things about being tortured.
If such references shock us unshockable citizens who have a certain uneasiness about our nation having legitimated (by legislative act a couple of years ago) an act which every kind of international law and Convention we can think of and our own tradition has condemned, worse was to come. Try this: "Church-Goers Like Torture More," which comes our way via an Atlantic electronic clip. It refers to a Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey, just released, which reveals that the more church-going you are, the more likely you are to like torture. We don't have space for reporting the statistics, but they are easy to summarize: The never-goers-to-church disapprove of torture most; mainline Protestants and non-Hispanic Catholics like it least, and evangelical weekly attenders clearly favor it.
Where have the churches been on this subject? Most of them, through their leaders, are clearly on record against our using torture as an offense against human dignity, a contradiction of our nation's most cherished traditions, et cetera. A statement issued by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2006 and signed by leaders of many Orthodox and Protestant denominations was condemnatory. We hope that one day evangelical leadership will step forward. We may no longer justify the use of torture as a policy, but the soul-damaging effect of approving it remains.
Some justify our use of violence because the biblical God and God’s people acted violently and the book of Revelation has a visionary line about it. Others say that the more fearful you are, the more likely you justify an instrument which Mr. Cheney (no documentation provided or permitted, he says) says helped us prevent 9/11 repeats. They don’t say why church-going of some sorts inspires fear and ignites fury, while staying home puts one at relative ease. Most of all, as we read the detailed horror-stories of what we allowed and/or practiced, one wonders why some other theological themes don’t get examined more. "Human dignity?" The affirmation that humans are made in the image of God and, for Christians, that one is to see the Christ in others should carry some weight. We are told that we tortured only to get information, not for retribution. Read the defenses of torture and one will find witness to "our" hatred of those "others" with whom we deal. We at least ought to be discussing what church leaders have been saying.
Find "Church-Goers Like Torture More" at http://politics.theatlantic.com/2009/04/pew_church-goers_like_torture_more.php.
Find the 2006 statement issued by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops at http://www.nccbuscc.org/comm/archives/2006/06-215.shtml.
See also Mark Danner, "The Red Cross Torture Report: What It Means" in New York Review of Books, April 30, 2009.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.