Well, Probably Nobody

01.18.15 11:45 AM ET

Who Would Jesus Torture?

Over two thirds of Christians support the torture of terrorist suspects, compared with just 41% of nonbelievers. Why?

In a way, this shouldn’t be surprising.

Christianity is the religion that brought us the Inquisition, the Crusades, and the burning of witches. So perhaps it makes sense that Christians are more supportive of torture than atheists, as shown in a Washington Post poll taken just after the revelations that the CIA had tortured suspected terrorists.

Sixty-eight percent of white evangelicals believe “torture of suspected terrorists” can be “often” or “somewhat” justified. This is in line with mainline Protestants (63 percent) and white Catholics (68 percent). Together, these are America’s three largest religious groups, comprising 26 percent, 18 percent, and 15 percent of the population, respectively.

Of those who said they had “no religion,” only 41 percent said torture of suspects is often or somewhat justified.

On the face of it, this would seem to score a point for the atheists. Surely, torture is one of those human activities that is, at best, ethically dubious. And yet religious people are 50 percent more likely to believe it to be often or somewhat justified. What’s up with that?

Here are four possibilities.

Hypocrisy. To progressives, this may seem like the most persuasive answer. Whatever happened to turning the other cheek (Luke 6:29), and not casting stones at sinners (John 8:7)? Jesus told us, “love your enemies,” (Matthew 5:44), not waterboard them. Pastor Brian Zahnd made this case eloquently in Patheos shortly after the survey data was released.

Progressives, religious and secular, love to do this—to tell conservatives they’re misunderstanding their own religion. It’s a power grab, and is basically the inverse of fundamentalism. The progressive is saying “I have the correct understanding of Jesus, not you.”

But Jesus also said “No one comes to the Father but through me,” (John 14:6), which justifies a lot of the Crusades, not to mention centuries of missionary proselytization, conducted at the point of the sword. Or how about: “If anyone does not remain in Me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire, and burned.” (John 15:6) That one was used by the Inquisition.

Which leads to the second theory, that Christian support of torture is because…

Religion is Evil. This is another favorite, particularly of the neo-atheist crowd. Really, it’s the inverse of the claim of hypocrisy: that the truth of religion is bad. In this view, Christians favor torture because, in fact, religion is evil and Christianity especially so. Evidence? Centuries of torture, inquisition, war, the temporal power of the Catholic church, corruption, abuse, greed, incitement to violence, cruelty, racism, dehumanization, exploitation, misogyny, homophobia—whatever you’d like, surely someone religious has done it.

This doesn’t quite get it either, though. The same 68 percent of Christians who supported torturing “suspected” terrorists love puppies and hate genocide. By which I mean: They’re inconsistently evil. It may or may not be fair to accuse Christians of propping up a system of abuse and exploitation. But it certainly isn’t accurate to accuse them of, themselves, abusing and exploiting. Not directly, anyway. If there are moral failings in mainstream American Christianity, they must be more specific than “evil.”

So now we get to…

Republicanism. Crunching the numbers, Sarah Posner in Religion Dispatches observed that the 69 percent of white evangelicals who believe the CIA’s actions were justified seem to map onto the 70 percent of white evangelicals who are Republican.

To Sarah’s, I’ll add one more statistical correlation: 59 percent of nonbelievers say torture is not often justified. 63 percent are or lean Democratic.

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So is this just politics?

Not quite. 75 percent of white mainstream Protestants said the CIA’s actions were justified—that’s well above the 51 percent who are Republican. So does the 66 percent support figure among Catholics; only 49 percent of them are Republican.

Politics clearly plays some role, but I think it’s more interesting than that.

Moral Righteousness. For about twenty years, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has been developing, and finding evidence for, a theory of morality he calls “social intuitionism.” He is not an obscure intellectual. He has a bestselling book called The Righteous Mind, an accompanying TED talk, and anointment by the upper crust as Someone To Listen To. This can make his ideas a little annoying.

But Haidt is surely correct that “morality” means different things to different people, and that for many conservatives, it includes not just liberal virtues like minimizing harm and promoting fairness, but values such as loyalty, respect for authority, and sanctity. Liberals are outraged that a person is being tortured; conservatives are at least equally outraged that the same person wanted to kill Americans.

This is deeper than the usual partisan split. Moral conservatives may well vote Democratic, because they are outraged by the rich getting richer. But they’re not on board with Occupy, or with the 1968 student protests for that matter. They’re more likely to be Reagan Democrats, Soccer Moms, and Panera Moms than students debating the relative merits of Dennis Kucinich and Elizabeth Warner.

They’re also more likely to support law and order, and have a clearer—liberals would say overly simplistic—sense of good and evil. The bad guys are bad. They’re not like us, they want to kill us, and they don’t play by the same rules as they do. While a moral conservative may vote Democrat and may deplore torture, she might well agree with Dick Cheney that “we also have to work through, sort of, the dark side.”

Witness D.C. McAllister’s article, “Yes, Christians Can Support Torture,” published in The Federalist. I’ll leave out her most ridiculous moves—like quoting Deuteronomy on stoning people to death, but omitting Jesus Christ on the same point. Her primary claim is that “criminals forfeit their dignity.” Here, McAllister quotes Aquinas: “a bad man is worse than a beast” and concludes, without citation, that “The Bible does not recognize the autonomy and dignity of the evildoer.”

This is Haidt’s conservative moral judgment writ plain. Criminals (McAllister doesn’t really deal with the ‘suspected’ part) surrender their autonomy and dignity when they choose to commit crimes. Therefore, those moral values are outweighed by the state’s interest in preserving order and security. There it is: Loyalty, authority, sanctity outweighing fairness and minimizing harm. To make an omelet, you’ve got to break some heads. I mean, eggs.

There are plenty of other factors: Conservative media frenzy and fear-mongering (Ebola, anyone?). Distortions of the fact that torture yielded no usable information. Maybe even the crucifixion itself, which according to one theologian, “asserts that God requires violence to save the world.”.

But having watched the back-and-forth since the Post poll was released, and having watched how progressives and conservatives have talked past one another, I’m going with the moral explanation. These are two different moral reads of the same(-ish) facts, and each side can’t understand what the other side can’t understand.

My only complaint with Haidt, and it is a significant one, is that he treats conservative and progressive morality as, themselves, morally equivalent. For those of us who do not—that is, for those of us who see preferring order over fairness to be morally retrograde—he offers little hope of moving the needle. For many of us, that is as depressing as the notion that Jesus would torture someone.