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Earlier this week, the Pew Research Center released a survey
on the views of religious Americans regarding torture. They survey found that white
evangelical Protestants were the most supportive of torture–only 16% of
evangelicals reject the use of torture.
A whopping 62% of white evangelical Protestants think that torture is
justified in most or many circumstances.
Since the findings became public, numerous columnists, pundits, and
bloggers have opined on why evangelicals support torture.
The unaddressed question is, however, why white mainline
Protestants–those belonging to the historic “brand name” churches–do not
support torture. Indeed,
approximately twice as many mainline Protestants (31%) believe that torture is
never justified and an additional 22% think it is almost always wrong. Their attitude toward torture is nearly
opposite of evangelical Protestant opinion. More than half of mainline Protestants reject the use of
torture against other human beings as justifiable means to political ends. They are the religious community most
strongly opposed to torture.
Despite the fact that evangelicals garner most media
attention, they do not represent the entire Protestant community. Depending upon what survey one
believes, mainline Protestant churches–even after many years of numerical
decline, internal struggles, and bad press–still comprise somewhere between
15-20% of the American population.
The Pew survey on torture makes it startlingly clear why mainline
Protestantism remains an important constituency in American political life:
Mainline Protestants are the nation’s moral conscience.
And it isn’t just torture. In recent years, mainline Protestants were also the
religious group that most strongly opposed the Iraq War, rejected
waterboarding, and expressed worry about the admixture of religion and politics
at the nation’s military academies.
In every survey, mainline Protestants see torture, violence, and
military intervention as the strategies of last resort in national politics.
What makes mainline Protestant reject violence? Critics argue that mainline Protestants
are wimps, theologically soft, and adhere to an “unmanly” and “feminized”
version of Christianity (if you don’t know, this is an unoriginal critique–it
goes back to the nineteenth century) with no stomach for hard decisions. Real Christians, they will insist, are
tough and know when to wield the sword in defense of faith and democracy.
But mainline Protestant apprehension regarding torture is
more than taste or a matter of character.
No, the divide between evangelical Protestants and mainline Protestants
regarding violence is a sharp difference in theology that continues to shape
the two communities.
The most significant Christian theological question is: What does the death of Jesus on the
cross mean? In the last century,
evangelicals and mainliners have answered this question in surprisingly
Evangelicals believe that Jesus’ death on the cross–with all
its brutality–saves them. Put
bluntly, an act of political torture resulted in their “personal salvation” and
entry into heaven. Jesus’ death “substitutes” for the death of Christian
believers and, in that his suffering, the rest of humanity is granted a
reprieve for their sins. In a very real sense, God allowed the Romans to kill
Jesus in order that God might accomplish a holy end. Hence, they don’t see torture as fundamentally bad. Indeed, some evangelical theologians
argue that torture is redemptive–that one person may die for the sake of the
Mainline Protestants generally reject this conception of
Jesus’ death. Instead, they argue
that Jesus was a victim of political violence that revealed the essential
ruthlessness of sin. And, in that
demonstration, he also demonstrated that to “lay down one’s life for one’s
friends,” instead of revenge, was the way to redeem the world. Mainline theologians switched the focus
away from the violence-as-salvation toward self-sacrificial love as the route
to human wholeness. They do
not believe that Jesus’ suffering was good. They believe that it was a demonstration of the evil of a
human political system that placed Caesar before God. Torture, as Jesus himself suffered, has no redemptive qualities. Salvation occurs as one loves one’s neighbor
as one’s self.
We don’t typically think of theology as having immediate
social consequences. But, in the
case of torture, the difference between evangelicals and mainliners should
underscore that the fact that theology is important. The ways in which different religious communities interpret
the meaning of scripture has profound political implications. This isn’t an obscure argument between
rival religious groups–it is a meaningful difference in a fundamental way of
understanding the nature of suffering, sin, and human nature based on sacred
Although some people think that mainline religion is
irrelevant and deserves to go the way of the dodo, I don’t. Their churches may be small, their congregations aging, and their worship, well, can be dull. But they are also right. What would we do without them? Somebody’s got to protect America’s
moral conscience by respecting the dignity of every human being. And, while there may be some individual
exceptions to the rule, from the results of the Pew survey, it doesn’t look
like we can depend on white evangelical Protestants to do so.