Torture and American Christianity

December 25, the holiday long celebrated as the birthday of the Unconquered Sun, but more recently as the birthday of Jesus Christ, the central figure in Christianity. Jesus is generally presented as a pacifist, author of the sermon on the mount with its beatitudes (“blessed are the peacemakers…”), but more recently his followers in America find it preferable not to love their enemies but to torture them.

These Christians, who generally call themselves evangelicals and fundamentalists because they take the fundamental tenets of their religion seriously, have managed to become powerful enough to dominate the Republican party and in 2000 they elected* one of their own as President of the United States. Within a year, this very Christian President began laying out plans for torturing his enemies.

Christianity and torture have, unfortunately, a long historical association. Indeed, the Spanish Inquisition perfected many of the most famous torture techniques, including waterboarding. You might think that Christians would be eager to strand Christianity’s associations with torture in the distant middle ages. You would think wrongly. Under the champion of Christianity residing in the White House, torture of prisoners became the official policy** of the U. S. Government.

It is difficult to write calmly about what has recently been done under the auspicies of the United States of America — difficult to avoid the intense anger and shame I feel as an American. But in the face of the Bush administration, anger and shame are unavoidable for anyone who cherishes civilized society. What is shocking is the extent to which evangelical and fundamentalist Christians embrace what Bush has done, much like the Holy See embraced the Inquisition.

I am no Christian, yet I am shamed by the way American Christians have embraced torture and other odious, uncivilized and unAmerican policies of the Bush Republicans. The evidence for the torture policy was obvious in 2004 — yet Bush was reelected. Reelected, it has to be pointed out, primarily due to the support of the most dedicated Christians. We must not forget that those who attended church regularly overwhelmingly supported Bush despite his policies, while those who rarely or only occasionally attended church opposed him.

This is a colossal moral failure on the part of American Christianity. Amazingly, among church-attending Christians there is little question about abortion’s immorality, but much doubt about whether torture is immoral. Or if torture is admitted to be wrong, it is denied that “simulated drowning” is torture. When pressed, Bush supporters have equated waterboarding with merely being dunked in water a bit — and who could object to that? Yet, everyone knows full well that the entire point of waterboarding (the water cure it used to be called) is to create the experience of drowning in the subject. As described by former Judge Advocate General Evan Wallach,

the victim experiences the sensations of drowning: struggle, panic, breath-holding, swallowing, vomiting, taking water into the lungs and, eventually, the same feeling of not being able to breathe that one experiences after being punched in the gut. The main difference is that the drowning process is halted. — “Waterboarding Used to be a Crime”, Washington Post, Nov. 4, 2007

Or consider the description by Scylla at who tried waterboarding hmself,

The water fills the hole in the saran wrap so that there is either water or vaccum in your mouth. The water pours into your sinuses and throat. You struggle to expel water periodically by building enough pressure in your lungs. With the saran wrap though each time I expelled water, I was able to draw in less air. Finally the lungs can no longer expel water and you begin to draw it up into your respiratory tract.

It seems that there is a point that is hardwired in us. When we draw water into our respiratory tract to this point we are no longer in control. All hell breaks loose. Instinct tells us we are dying.

I have never been more panicked in my whole life. Once your lungs are empty and collapsed and they start to draw fluid it is simply all over. You know you are dead and it’s too late. Involuntary and total panic.

There is absolutely nothing you can do about it. It would be like telling you not to blink while I stuck a hot needle in your eye.

At the time my lungs emptied and I began to draw water, I would have sold my children to escape. There was no choice, or chance, and willpower was not involved.

I never felt anything like it, and this was self-inflicted with a watering can, where I was in total control and never in any danger.

And I understood.

Waterboarding gets you to the point where you draw water up your respiratory tract triggering the drowning reflex. Once that happens, it’s all over.

. . . . So, is it torture?

I’ll put it this way. If I had the choice of being waterboarded by a third party or having my fingers smashed one at a time by a sledgehammer, I’d take the fingers, no question. – Scylla at

It is tempting make the assumption that Christianity’s lack of moral compass on issues like torture is due to its flawed doctrines. Christians believe in a “perfect” God who, it so happens, will torture most people in hell for an eternity. To reconcile this with “perfection” requires a perversity of mind unimaginable to me, though hundreds of millions of Christians seem to have no problem with it. Apparently they reason that if God does it, and if God is perfect, then torture can’t be so bad, can it? So torture becomes acceptable, even respectable.

Still, one might ask, how can decent human beings ever end up there? Are Dawkins and Hutchings and Harris right? Is religion essentially an evil enterprise, one which warps the human mind and subverts decency? Sometimes it seems that way, I admit.

But the better explanation, the one that makes most sense to me, is the one provided by psychologist Bob Altemeyer in his book The Authoritarians and endorced by John Dean in his book Conservatives without Conscience and his Findlaw Writ columns. Altemeyer’s studies explain how it is possible for dedicated Christians to become the least morally grounded of all Americans. It happens not because they are Christians or even because they are religious, but because they have a personality trait which certain religions both encourage and attract.

In my opinion, The Authoritarians is a must-read book. You can download it as a PDF, or order it here. Nothing else more clearly reveals the nature of the problem facing us.

——— Footnotes ———

* “elected”– or more accurately mis-elected. In the Supreme Court’s worst moment, its decision in Bush v Gore tossed aside the provisions in the U. S. Constitution for handling Presidential elections (as if the Constitution had nothing to do with the process) and prevented the State of Florida from following the laws set up by its Legislature for choosing Presidential electors. Had the Constitution been followed Bush would likely have become President anyway — but it would have happened constitutionally, a process the religious conservatives on the Court were afraid to trust.

** “official policy” — according to John Kiriakou, a CIA agent involved in torturing prisoners for the Bush Administration. As Scott Horton wrote in Harpers

But this week, a CIA agent, John Kiriakou, appeared, first on ABC News and then in an interview with NBC’s Matt Lauer, and explained just how the system works. When we want to torture someone (and it is torture he said, no one involved with these techniques would ever think anything different), we have to write it up. The team leader of the torture team proposes what torture techniques will be used and when. He sends it to the Deputy Chief of Operations at the CIA. And there it is reviewed by the hierarchy of the Company. Then the proposal is passed to the Justice Department to be reviewed, blessed, and it is passed to the National Security Council in the White House, to be reviewed and approved. The NSC is chaired, of course, by George W. Bush, whose personal authority is invoked for each and every instance of torture authorized. And, according to Kiriakou as well as others, Bush’s answer is never “no.” He has never found a case where he didn’t find torture was appropriate. Here’s a key piece of the Kiriakou statement:

LAUER: Was the White House involved in that decision?

KIRIAKOU: Absolutely, this isn’t something done willy nilly. It’s not something that an agency officer just wakes up in the morning and decides he’s going to carry out an enhanced technique on a prisoner. This was a policy made at the White House, with concurrence from the National Security Council and Justice Department. — “The President’s Coming Out Party”, Harpers, Dec 15, 2007

Horton goes on to observe that the Bush administration has resurrected

the process of official cruelty under the Stuart monarchs in seventeenth century England. Persons accused of state crimes very frequently were interrogated with the use of specific techniques, including the rack, the thumbscrew, and waterboarding. King James I personally described the process in The Kings Booke (1606). He would, on the advice of his officers, “approve no new torture,” but he would certainly avail himself of the existing practices. In ascending order of severity they were: thumbscrews, the rack and waterboarding. That’s right. Waterboarding was considered the most severe of the official forms of torture. Worse than the rack and thumbscrews.

In the depraved humor of Dick Cheney, of course, it’s just bobbing for apples at a Halloween Fair. — “The President’s Coming Out Party”, Harpers, Dec 15, 2007

This is the face of American Christianity today. Are Christians ashamed? Or will they continue as a group to support the Republicans who have brought us to this point?

This entry was posted in Articles Highlighted, Bushwacked, Christianity, Civil Unliberties, Ethics & Morality, Religion, State & Church, Torture. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Torture and American Christianity

  1. Matthew says:

    You’re right about Christians’ moral failure. However, you’re not right to link torture to Christianity or even to religion. The atheist USSR and China have been guilty of atrocities at least equal to anything that has ever taken place in Christendom.

  2. Rastaban says:

    Matthew, in saying that Christianity has “a long historical association” with torture, I’m not saying that only Christianity has an association with torture, or that other entities don’t have horrible associations. I’m certainly not saying that religion or Christianity are the cause of torture — in fact I specifically said otherwise. I wrote “It happens not because they are Christians or even because they are religious, but because they have a personality trait which certain religions both encourage and attract.” And I referred the reader to Altemeyer’s book, The Authoritarians, to understand this.

    I fully agree that there is an historical association between communist totalitarian regimes like the Soviet Union and China and mass murder, imprisonment of political opponents, and other unforgivable practices. And those regimes were officially atheist and they suppressed religious liberty. Which mean that atheism has a definite association with those horrible behaviors. All atheists today should resoundingly condemn mass murder, imprisonment of political opponents, and other infringements on human rights. Just as (this is my point) all Christians today should resoundingly condemn torture.

    We must never forget that people who believed like us did horrible things. And unfortunately, in the case of the Bush administration, are doing horrible things in our name today.

  3. OzAtheist says:

    I don’t condone torture, particularly something as horrible as waterboarding, however, do you see any instance when some form of torture could be acceptable?
    I recently read Sam Harris’ ‘The End of Faith’ in which he has a section on torture, most of which I didn’t agree with; but I could see some of his argument for torture in some circumstances.
    In case you don’t have the book, the following link has some commentary in response to the controversies he raised in his book:

    Christians should be ashamed of any form of torture or violence, after all didn’t jesus teach ‘love thy neighbor’ and ‘do unto other as you would have them do to you’? 🙂

  4. Rastaban says:

    Oz, I don’t see any circumstances in which torture should ever be legal. From a moral perspective, there are rare circumstances in which the only choices are repugnant. Thus it is possible to imagine a scenario in which torture might be less morally repugnant than any viable alternative. But these are also scenarios in which torture is least likely to work.

    Why is that? Because normally there are lots of viable alternatives. It is only when time is running out that you are likely to also run low on viable alternatives. Thus the scenarios in which torture might become the least repugnant alternative are also those scenarios in which there is very little time to work with. But torture only generates reliable information when the torturers are sure that their victim has the specific information they need and when they can credibly promise the victim that they will torture him/her again in the future if it turns out they have lied.

    Consider the popular scenario in which authorities have captured one of the Islamic suicide-terrorists involved with planting a nuclear bomb in the city. If the terrorist knows where the bomb is and when it will go off, he only has to wait until he’s tortured and then provide false information (he was probably trained to do so). Time is on his side, unfortunately. This is not a promising scenario for torture to be successful (nor perhaps any other technique). And if the terrorist does not in fact know the necessary details, torture will at best draw out false information which will likewise waste authorities’ precious time.

    Torture seems to be most promising as a technique when you hold the victim for weeks or months and have plenty of time to torture them in retaliation for false information — with time you can break them down and give them no hope for relief from being tortured. But when there is this much time, there are always many civilized alternatives to torture which will be far less morally repugnant.

    So torture should always be illegal. But if a torturer can demonstrate in court that there was so little time that torture was the least morally repugnant alternative available, as a juror I’d consider that exculpatory.

  5. OzAtheist says:

    Rastaban, much the same as what I think, which is why I had a problem with Sam Harris’ arguments. A torture victim may tell you what you want to hear not necessarily what they know/believe.

  6. Jon Trott says:

    Late to this post’s discussion, but as an Evangelical Christian I am absolutely outraged at my subculture’s support for waterboarding. Christ Himself was tortured. Yet here we are, siding with Christ’s tormentors. All I can say — nearly with tears — is that I am so sorry for the wretched, disgusting, and completely unchristian position the so-called “Christian Right” has taken on torture. I speak out against torture whenever and wherever possible.

  7. Mia says:

    I totally agree with you,Jon Trott,torture is always wrong,it doesn’t matter it will be practised by christian or atheist,or person of other religion.Christianity never allowed,allows and will never allow any form of torture.God tells us to love each other and have mercy,not be inquisitors.

  8. Dwight says:

    Mia & Jon, thanks for your comments. The central figure of Christianity is of course Jesus, and it is impossible for me to understand how any Christian who takes their religion seriously could read the NT account of the sermon on the mount, the beatitudes, the injunction to “turn the other cheek” and “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, etc, and conclude that that torture was morally acceptable Christian behavior. Yet the Bush administration, with it daily prayer breakfasts and openly religious bent, came to exactly that conclusion.

    I remember another President, also very sincerely Christian, named Jimmy Carter. I can’t imagine him every sanctioning torture.

    Something happened to American Christianity between the 1970s and 2000. And it wasn’t just Bush. In 2002 the Rev. Charles Stanley of Atlanta First Baptist church declared from the pulpit that God is in favor of war; “there is no question, God favors warfare” he declared in a sermon urging the U.S. to invade Iraq. Conservative Christians were the most gung-ho for the war, as well as for torture. And according to polls, the more often they attended church, the more gung-ho they were.


    How can good Christians (like you) steer American Christianity back on track?

    I don’t know. I hope you do.

  9. Jon Trott says:

    I wish I knew…

    If you want some of the ugly history of American Christianity’s collusion with Empire, we can go all the way back to Father Coughlin (sp), the right wing (one might say fascist) shrieker via radio. But in my lifetime I think one need go no farther than Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. That group shaped (and was shaped by) the American Right to such a degree… add to that mix the Southern Baptist Convention with its rabidly anti-woman backtracking. Check out the cross-pollination between the Christian Right and far-out non-christian groups such as the Mormons and even Sun Myung Moon’s group, who funded the so called Christian Right’s crusades. The old anti-Semitic and / or Masonic conspiracy theories were then and are now repackaged by the likes of LaHaye and Glenn Beck. Fear is the name of the game, irrational, unreasoning, claiming Christ’s legacy but exhibiting none of His fruits.

    In recent years, the fact that I believe in a God who suffered as we suffer has taken on a far deeper resonance. I have had to revisit unbelief as an option in order to try to explain what has happened to American Christianity. But in revisiting it, I have discovered a deeper realization of Christ. I believe in the Jesus who was rejected by the Church at that time (Israel), was condemned by power (Rome’s Empire), and who was marginalized and finally nailed to a cross. That is resonant with what I see now, in America.

    So, you who do not find yourselves able to believe, I can only say (as Kierkegaard wrote, “without authority”) that I hope you keep exposing our hypocrisy, failure, and toadying up to Empire rather than loving the “least of these” (Matthew 25). We have failed you, and failed to such a degree that I wonder what God will say to us when we face Him.

    But Christ… He is lovely, good, pure, and worth your love. I believe in His resurrection. If you’re in Chicago some time, I’d love to sit down over coffee and talk about that. But the rest of it is anger and tears.

  10. Adam says:

    As a Christian, I am against any form of torture or whatever terms our government calls it. With any group of people/club/religion/tribe/etc., there are always going to be “bad apples” or those who claim to be of said “party” and do a disservice to what is stands for. If we all agree with that statement, then it simply means someone is not living up to the standards they claim (i.e. Bush claiming to be a Christian but allowing torture, or Muslims who claim to be peaceful but kill infidels) to be their own. It also could mean they don’t know what they believe. Broad American Christianity is a joke. It’s a culture thing or something born into because you attend a church service.
    Don’t discredit Christianity for what a president has done. Discredit the person for how they are ignorant on what they believe.

  11. Pingback: Friday Religion and Atheism Report 12/19 | Evangelically Atheist

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