Steven Waldman

One of the great unwritten stories of the Bush years is why religious leaders remained so quiet on torture. Most conservative Christian leaders were mum.
Rick Warren, a.k.a. America’s Pastor, did make a statement against torture a couple of years ago but I was curious whether he did anything beyond that. Here’s what he said in the new interview with Beliefnet and The Wall Street Journal:

BELIEFNET- You issued a statement a couple of years ago condemning torture.
WARREN – I’m totally against torture.
BELIEFNET- Do you think this was a profound moral failing of the Bush administration?
WARREN – Well I don’t know exactly how they defined torture….
BELIEFNET- John McCain thinks they did torture.
WARREN – Well, and you know what – some of the stuff I saw looking at Guantanamo looks like clearly it was torture. To me, if you torture someone, you put yourself no better than the enemy. We must maintain the moral highground. You have no right to condemn the immoral actions of others if we’re doing the same thing. And we should expect that others will torture our people if we’re torturing them.
BELIEFNET- Did you ever talk to President Bush to try to convince him to change his policy?
WARREN – No. No.
WARREN — Never got the chance. I just didn’t. In fact, in the first place, I’m a pastor, and people might misunderstand – I don’t deal with policy issues with Barack Obama or President Clinton or John McCain. I just don’t. that’s not my role. My role is to pastor these guys. As a leader I understand stress.
And even when I disagree with positions they hold, they’ve got plenty of political advisors. They don’t need me to be a political advisor. I’m not a pundit. I’m not a politician and that’s why I don’t take sides. But I am a pastor. And I can deal with “how’s your family doing? How’s your stress level doing?”
BELIEFNET- But you said you did talk to Barack Obama about his position on abortion so why wouldn’t you have talked to Bush about torture?
WARREN – I just didn’t have the opportunity. It’s actually…[Warren was talking to the Democratic caucus] and Barack actually brought it up [abortion]…

He says torture is deeply immoral and that the Bush administration did appear to torture – but declines to describe the Bush policy as a moral failing. He says he didn’t mention his views on torture because (implausibly) he didn’t have the opportunity. Then he said it was inappropriate for him to raise it with Bush because he only offers spiritual support.
It seems to me that Warren is still trying to figure out how and when to exert influence. He can steer entirely clear of controversial issues, playing a purely pastoral role. Or he can be a moral leader advocating for or against causes. But if he weighs in on behalf of some caues — opposing gay marriage and abortion, for instance — then he can’t well say it would have been inappropriate to campaign harder against torture.
It should be noted: Though I’m chiding Warren for not doing more, he actually went farther than most religious conservatives. Shouldn’t there be a certain amount of soul-searching going on among religious conservatives on this issue — especially now that it’s become clear that the administration they supporpted authorized, layed the groundwork for, and in some cases, directly encouraged torture?

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