PRIMARILY ORGANIZED BY the Evangelical left, a summit called "Religious Faith, Torture and Our National Soul" convened in Atlanta on September 11 to inveigh against the Bush administration's allegedly pro-torture policies.
Evangelicals for Human Rights President David Gushee was the summit's chief organizer. A Christian ethicist at Mercer University, Gushee helped persuade the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) last year to endorse his evangelical manifesto against torture. The manifesto, along with intensified interest in Global Warming, has marked the NAE's shift to the left. Gushee and other leaders within NAE also represent the increasingly predominant Evangelical Left within evangelical academia, where the traditional Religious Right is shunned as an embarrassment.
Gushee's NAE-backed manifesto, like the Atlanta summit, largely avoid any definition of "torture" but widely assumed that the United States is a routine and pervasive practitioner of it. And although ostensibly focused on inhumane interrogation techniques, the religious anti-torture campaign seems to represent a wider opposition to the wars of the Bush administration.
Stressing the summit's interfaith backing, Gushee enthused: "It began as a Baptist and evangelical event and I'm really happy to say it evolved," he said, according to a United Methodist report. "That's profound. We do share this country. We need to learn each other's name. I'm excited about the interfaith aspect of this gathering and I believe that only religious belief provides the grounding that we need to pull us out of our worst self."
Summit sponsors included The National Religious Campaign Against Torture, which is comprised largely of oldline Protestant groups, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship for non-conservative Southern Baptists, the Islamic Society for North America, Jim Wallis's Sojourners, and Ron Sider's Evangelicals for Social Action.
"Since the beginning of our effort we have faced critics who could not accept that any group could take such a stance without an ulterior motive," Gushee wrote shortly before the summit. "Rarely willing to offer full-throated defense of torture, our critics most often tried to attack our motives, charging that we were politically motivated--simply leftists in Christian clothing, peaceniks unconcerned with American security."
Urging "every Christian" to read Jane Mayer's new expose on Bush Administration policies, The Dark Side, Gushee cited the book as vindication against purportedly "Christian" critics who have derided him and other anti-torture activists as "unpatriotic leftist peaceniks." Gushee concluded: "I leave it to those Christians who defended--and still defend--such policies to explain themselves before God and man."
Among those critics is Keith Pavlischek from the Ethics and Public Policy Center, who has accused Gushee and many of his anti-torture activist colleagues of a soft pacifism that disregards the state's vocation to uphold justice and defend the innocent. Himself an Iraq War veteran and Christian ethicist, he noted Gushee's reluctance to define torture, telling the Atlanta Journal Constitution: "I want to push up against the boundary of that. Why, because I am sadistic? No, because I want to protect innocent people." Terror suspects do not qualify for the same protections afforded U.S. citizens and lawful combatants, he said. "In between are a continuum of interrogation techniques that I believe are morally and legally permissible, that are aggressive, that are short of torture," Pavlischek insisted.
According to the Journal Constitution, Gushee's dismissed Pavlischek's critique as a mere quibbling over torture definitions, when the Bible and the Golden Rule of Christianity affirm all human life as sacred. Gushee would invest all terror detainees with the same protections as U.S. citizens and as afforded by the Army Field Manual toward lawful combatants. In turn, Pavlischek has pointed out that this standard would preclude even "angry shouting," and that Gushee's anti-torture manifesto pacifistically urges that the U.S. War on Terror rely on "non-lethal methods."
Emphasizing the Golden Rule as a guide to interrogation of terrorists was a central theme for Gushee, who kicked off the anti-torture summit by releasing a poll that, disturbingly for Gushee, showed most southern white evangelicals approving of torture, until reminded of Christ's command to "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." The poll of 600 southern white evangelicals showed 57 percent supporting torture with terror suspects. But when reminded of the Golden Rule, more than half agreed that torture was wrong. According to Associated Baptist Press, Gushee chided John McCain, who opposes affording terror suspects the same rights as U.S. citizens and lawful combatants, as "grievously disappointing to all who follow this battle for our national soul." And he encouraged Barack Obama to "make torture a moral and, in fact a religious issue--a values issue" that will help him "communicate to religious Americans--and especially to evangelicals."
During the anti-torture summit, attorney Gita Gutierrez of the far-left, New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights told of her client, Guantanamo detainee Mohammed al-Qatani, who allegedly was one of the originally planned 9-11 hijackers. "Everyone is someone's child," Gutierrez said, according to a United Methodist report. "Mohammed's elderly, sick father went to meet with lawyers from the Center for Constitutional Rights and filled out papers so his son could get legal representation."
Gutierrez described al-Qatani as initially so terrified by torture at Guantanamo that he had to be "tricked" into meeting her. "He was curled up in a corner and he was so terrified that the interpreter in the room kept having to ask him to pull his arms away from his mouth so they could understand what he was saying," she recounted. "We have learned to dehumanize people based on race, religion or beliefs," she complained. "We have developed the capacity to see other human beings as less than human."
It is not clear whether Gutierrez described the details of al-Qatani's treatment at Guantanamo to the Atlanta anti-torture summit. But Time magazine described him as having been restrained to a swivel chair for long periods, deprived of sleep, subjected to loud music and lowered temperatures, being told to act like a dog, forced to wear a bra, and massaged by a female interrogator who straddled him like a lap dancer.
Gushee complained to the anti-torture activists in Atlanta about evangelical support for "torture" and the Bush Administration. "This is related to a broader evangelical authoritarianism, especially in our most conservative quarters, that elevates the role of the man over his family, the male pastor over his church, the president over his nation and our nation over the rest of the world," Gushee fretted. "The kinds of checks and balances provided by democratic constitutionalism, the wisdom of other nations, and international law are devalued." Evangelicals are "not very good" in their vigilance against government power, he alleged.
Most of the southern, white evangelicals queried by Gushee's poll agreed that the United States is practicing torture. But like Gushee and his anti-torture activists, they seem to lack a clear definition of what exactly constitutes torture. Does loud shouting or being forced to wear a bra count? When does physical discomfort or emotional intimidation rise to the level of torture? Gushee's summit seemed unwilling to provide clear answers, instead only contributing its own sweeping assumptions to an already confused debate.
Mark D. Tooley directs the United Methodist committee at the Institute on Religion and Democracy.