Christians and Torture: Part 1, The Pew Report

One of the joys I have teaching at ACU is doing research with undergraduates. In the coming posts I'd like to share a bit of the research I supervised this summer working with some very talented students: Allison, Whitney, Daniel, Page, Bonnie, Courtney and Kelsey. The students plan to present their research this coming spring at a psychological conference.

Our broad topic was attitudes toward torture and the use enhanced interrogation techniques. A more specific focus in some of the research was the relationship between religious belief and attitudes concerning torture.

Our research discussions began with me handing out a report published by the Pew Research Center. Specifically, at the height of the torture debates in America last spring Pew published a report regarding the relationship between church attendance, religious affiliation and attitudes about the use of torture.

The following question was asked:

Do you think the use of torture against suspected terrorists in order to gain important information can often be justified, sometimes be justified, rarely be justified, or never be justified?
The following likert scale was provided:
  1. Can often be justified.
  2. Can sometimes be justified.
  3. Can rarely be justified.
  4. Can never be justified.
The findings, broken down by religious demographics, were curious and alarming for people of faith. Specifically, 49% of the total US population felt that torture can often or sometimes be justified. When this population trend was broken down by religious demographic the following trends emerged. First, 62% White evangelical Protestants said torture can often or sometimes be justified. This is an increase of +13% in pro-torture sentiment for people who ostensibly serve a Lord who said "Love your enemies."

As similar trend emerged when church attendance was examined. Fifty-four percent of people who attend religious services "at least weekly" said that torture is often or sometimes justified. That is a +5% increase over the national average. This difference might not be much but it's downright embarrassing, morally speaking, given that only 42% of people who "seldom or never" attend religious worship services saw torture as often or sometimes justified. That is, religious people were +12% more in favor of torture than the irreligious. Translated into my religious tradition, this means Christians were more in favor of torture than non-Christians.

I asked the students to process these findings. What is going on? Their first response is likely to be your first response. Might these findings be confounded by political affiliation? That is, there might be more Republicans in the religious group. This is most definitely the case for the White evangelical Protestants who had the highest pro-torture ratings. So might all this just be a Democrat/Republican split rather than a Christian/non-Christian issue?

I think so, and some additional Pew analyses support this notion (that the religious differences go away when political affiliation is controlled for). But this still begs the question. Republican or no, why would Christians be more in favor of torture than non-Christians? It's a curious position given the explicit teachings of Jesus in the gospels. And let me be clear, I'm not even talking about pacifism. I'm talking about torture. That is, even if you believe in just war a Christian should be very reticent about the use of violence. Even if a Christian doesn't totally eschew violence they have to be very, very squeamish about it. Right? Isn't that the Christian position? And yet, that's not what we see in the Pew Research. We don't see the Christian population being more worried and angst-filled about torture. They seem, rather, more gung-ho. It's the exact opposite of what Christ-followers should be doing.

So I asked my students, what's going on here? Is this all just about politics? Or is there something about religious people, Christians in particular, that make them pro-torture?

In the coming posts I'll share what the students discovered.

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8 thoughts on “Christians and Torture: Part 1, The Pew Report”

  1. I don't know what direction you took, but I would be interested to see research that digs even deeper into the relationship between this trend and specific theological convictions.

    For example, I wonder how a very entrenched, exclusivist view of salvation - in which non-Christians will deservingly endure tremendous anguish in the afterlife anyway - would influence people's attitudes about how the same people ought to be treated in this life.

  2. I not only agree with Matt, but I would imagine that one can justify torture to prevent larger issues of transgression concerning national security. Won't many more be in danger of intolerance if means are not used to protect the ends of security.

    It is all about what one thinks is of ultimate value. Your concern over "Christ's followers" being uniform when it concerns these issues, assumes a literalistic and simplistic understanding of the text of the New Testament (the Old seems to justify killing one's enemy). And it also doesn't seem to take into consideration development of history, individuals concerning their views and values of life and liberty.

  3. I am a Christian who finds torture justified. I do not want my freedom to worship Christ continued to be threatened. That is the bottom line. We are dealing with psychopaths who will continue to kill for the sake of their extreme, distorted view of Islam. Get your head out of your verbose, intellectual sandbox.

  4. The problem is Kristi, that your freedom to worship Christ will continue to be threatened and no amount of torture will prevent that. And I don't mean threatened by our government. Of course no matter what happens you'll be free to worship Christ, but there may be consequences. I suppose the question then becomes should we torture to prevent those potential consequences from happening or risk being torured as a result of our faith (as many are) to prevent others from being tortured in the name of freedom?

  5. As a member of an illegal church in a country where Christian worship is illegal and conversion carries the death penalty, I want to say that I do not think you will ever here this view espoused by members of persecuted churches.

    Infringing other peoples human rights is no way to defend our own rights.

    How are versions of Christianity that espouses torture as valid any better than extreme Islam?

  6. The difference is: Christianity that "espouses" torture does so in an attempt to stop persecution of ALL people of ALL beliefs. Extreme Islam would have all religions except for Islam abolished. It is called genocide.

  7. What happened to the days in which Christians were willing to die for their faith? The early church flourished precisely because the early Christians refused to fight back against the Romans who tortured and murdered them; they willingly gave their lives. We modern Christians, by comparison, are utter cowards, forsaking Christ's command to love our enemies the moment it becomes frightening to us.

    Of course they're trying to kill us; people have been trying to kill Christians since there were Christians to kill. Now, however, we have rejected Paul's statement that "to live is Christ, to die is gain." We have rejected Christ's command in Matthew 10:28, "Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Hell."

    We have given up Christ's radical morality for the sake of our own safety. Safety! We claim to follow the one who came down from Heaven to be tortured to death, whose apostles were slaughtered almost to a man for their believes, whose church grew out of a background of bloody persecution, and we talk about being *safe?* Here we are, the mightiest country on Earth, and we are willing to make moral compromises for the sake of a handful of fanatics that even the tiny church persecuted by one of the greatest empires in human history would not make. How far we have fallen.

    What truly saddens me about this is that the *atheists* are better about this than we are. People who believe that their death is permanent are more willing to hold fast to their morals at risk of their own lives than people who believe in eternal salvation. Truly, the American church has fallen far from the lofty ideals of its noble predecessors.

  8. Richard, others,

    It seems to me that torture is precisely the point of the crucifixion. Humans singling out someone they consider a threat to their way of life and torturing and killing them. Not so Christ and his followers who are to bless and pray for one's enemies. Personally, I not sure superficial theology produces a desire for torture. Fear does.


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