Pew: Church-Goers Like Torture More

They were told not to damage the grass of the earth or any green growth or any tree, but only those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads. They were allowed to torture them for five months, but not to kill them, and their torture was like the torture of a scorpion when it stings someone.
          -Revelation 9:4,5, NRSV

According to a new study from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, those who attend church at least weekly are more prone to say that torture is justifiable. Suffice it to say that, in the eyes of those who support the use of torture, Khalid Sheikh Muhammad and Abu Zubaydah do not have the seal of God on their foreheads.

A combined 54 percent of at-least-weekly church-goers say torture is either often or sometimes justifiable; for those who attend monthly or a few times a year, that figure is 51 percent; for those who do not attend, it is 42 percent.

Evangelicals, according to the survey, are more prone to saying torture is justifiable than members of the nation's other two main Christian groups: so-called "mainline" Protestants and white, non-Hispanic Catholics. Unaffiliateds--a conglomerated group of atheists, agnostics, and those who say their religion is "nothing in particular--support torture the least: 40 percent say it's justifiable often or sometimes.

How could this be? What happened to forgiveness and the other cheek? The Lamb of God's teachings stop at the walls of Guantanamo?

Let us not forget that the main storyline of the New Testament is one of torture: Jesus comes into the world and dies an excruciating death to redeem the sins of man. Perhaps those closest to the story are most comfortable with suffering when there's a purpose behind it--here, that purpose would be to obtain information. The eschatological bent of some Evangelicals might account for some Revelation-style views on punishment, too.

Let's also keep in mind that the Bible, from start to end, has a lot of violence in it. The Old Testament, in particular, is filled with the slaughter of villages, and I'd be interested to hear how Jews respond to the torture question--unfortunately, Pew only broke down the Christian groups above. Israel's long experience with the threat of terrorism might shape Jewish views on the matter as well.

And, obviously, President Bush, whose administration started the practice of enhanced interrogation, courted religious conservatives in two elections as a significant faction of his base...

: A reader writes:

Not to denigrate the story, which is very interesting, but the question about turning the other cheek and forgiveness is, I hope, not what's at issue for people going to Church regularly. What I mean is, I'm hoping they aren't approving of torture for the sake of causing pain, but rather find it necessary in order to protect the country from attack. I would disagree even with that, and don't think torture is necessary to protecting the country, but linking it to an unwillingness to forgive, and thus a desire to cause pain, is not supported by the poll, and I hope it isn't true.

A very good point. Enhanced interrogation, as it is argued by its proponents, is not about retribution--it is about gaining information and preventing terrorist attacks. My above analysis is meant to be a bit on the light side; analyzing the psychology of enhanced-interrogation supporters' ethos and its relationship to their religion, in a comprehensive way, isn't something that I think can be achieved in a post of this length--so I hope that's clear. Forgiveness and the other cheek have little bearing on the security discussion, strictly speaking.

However, the notion that Muhammad and Zubaydah deserved to be tortured is, I think, latent in some justifications of torture: that they are bad people who did terrible things, and hence we shouldn't feel so bad about what was done to them, is a looming feeling that one can sense from some discussions of torture. And that implicit (sometimes explicit) argument is about retribution.