Evangelicals and torture

Earlier this year, 17 prominent evangelical leaders and scholars issued “An Evangelical Declaration Against Torture: Protecting Human Rights in an Age of Terror.” As Peter Steinfels of the New York Times notes, while the document received a great deal of attention when issued, it has largely been forgotten:

Four months have passed since a group of 17 prominent evangelical leaders and scholars issued “An Evangelical Declaration Against Torture: Protecting Human Rights in an Age of Terror.”

. . .

Will everyone who has read this document, or even heard of it, please raise his hand?

Well, you’re forgiven. There are reasons, unfortunate perhaps but understandable, that the declaration hasn’t received the attention it deserves.

Not that it went entirely unnoticed, particularly back in March, when the board of the National Association of Evangelicals all but unanimously endorsed it. This endorsement, by a body claiming to represent 45,000 evangelical Protestant churches with 30 million members, was quickly reported as another sign of an important shift in evangelicalism’s political stance. For several years, leading evangelicals have been pressing the movement to widen its public agenda to embrace issues like poverty and global warming alongside standing concerns about abortion, religious symbols in public spaces and sexual norms.

But in March, the declaration also drew immediate fire from other religious conservatives. Daniel R. Heimbach, a Southern Baptist professor of ethics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, called the evangelical declaration a “diatribe” that was “confused and dangerous,” mainly because it failed to pinpoint exactly where coercive interrogation crossed into torture.

Mark D. Tooley, a leader of the neoconservative Institute on Religion and Democracy, quickly dismissed the declaration as the work of “pseudo-pacifist academics and antiwar activists” who were contributing to “a barely disguised crusade against the U.S. war against terror.”

The initial flurry of attention has died down, although people who want to use the declaration for church or classroom discussions continue to download it from the Web site www.evangelicalsforhumanrights.org.

As Steinfels observes, however, the document might have had an impact after all. Recent polling by the Pew Research Center shows that those who worship every week–including Evangelicals–are more likely to oppose torture than those who don’t, which suggests that religious voters are susceptible to a purely religious argument on issues like torture:

The survey found that in every religious group, those who said they worshiped weekly appeared more restrictive toward torture than less observant believers, although the difference was modest. Dr. Green considered this finding “a bit counterintuitive” because weekly worshipers “tend to be more Republican, conservative and supportive of the Bush administration than their co-religionists” — traits otherwise associated with more permissive attitudes toward torture.

Not surprisingly, the poll data showed that white evangelicals were somewhat more permissive toward torture than other religious groups. But in Dr. Green’s fine-grained effort to sort out religious identity and weekly worship from other factors like party identification, political ideology and views on the Iraq war, white evangelicals also appeared the most likely to have their views modified on religious grounds alone.

Does this mean that “An Evangelical Declaration Against Torture” is a potentially influential document? Its original authors and the scores of significant evangelical leaders who have signed on to it along with the National Association of Evangelicals obviously hope so. But this is also an act of conscience, to which they were compelled regardless of its impact.

“What we developed was a pretty sizable teaching document,” writes David P. Gushee, a professor of moral philosophy at Union University and the principal drafter of the declaration, who has compared it to a papal encyclical. But in the end, he said, the drafters’ motivation was simply “to bear Christian witness.”

Read it all here.

So did this document make a difference? How can members of the faith community most effectively address issues like torture and war? How do we measure success? Is being a Christian witness sufficient reason to issue such a document?

Related: Bush signs new executive order on interrogation methods.

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