Just after Easter this year, Americans were treated to the revelation that senior leaders of the Bush administration (later revealed to include the president himself) took part in meetings to approve “special interrogation” techniques to be used against terror suspects held by the CIA.
Now, they didn’t just approve those techniques: these leaders went into great detail about what would happen to the suspects. Over and over again, they talked about “whether [the suspects] would be slapped, pushed, deprived of sleep or subjected to simulated drowning, called waterboarding,” according to ABC News. “Waterboarding,” it should be noted, was classified as torture by the United States after WWII when several Japanese soldiers were convicted of war crimes for the practice.
At least some of those present at the meetings knew they were wrong. No less a Christian than John Ashcroft wanted the White House to distance itself from its own policy, saying “History will not judge this kindly.” The news reports do not record any Cabinet members sharing his concerns.
The reaction to this rather startling news was a collective yawn. That the American government had knowingly and repeatedly approved policies that allowed interrogators to beat, humiliate, or degrade prisoners, to push them to the edge of psychosis, even to cause them to fear for their lives and the lives of their families, barely drew a ripple in the media. They were concerned with more important things, such as whether Barack Obama wore a flag lapel pin or why he ordered orange juice rather than coffee at a diner.
There was hardly a whisper from the churches and other religious institutions, either. Trapped like the rest of the nation in a seemingly endless loop of Good Fridays, they shrugged off the latest information and went about enjoying the spring like everybody else.
Ho hum, the nation (or at least its elites) seemed to be saying, The Bush people slapped the crap out of some terrorists. Oh, well. At least they didn’t crucify anybody.
Religious people do care about torture and they do care about barbarism at the highest levels of their government. We recognize that we are all created in God’s image and that torture destroys that image as it dehumanizes both the tortured and the torturer.
We recognize, moreover, that torture is incompatible with the American values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Our nation has often aspired to use its moral authority as a beacon of freedom, justice, and democracy around the world. But torture is corrosive to these values. It eats through our moral standing like acid, leaving us unable to fulfill our self-appointed mission.
It is unacceptable for the media to ignore this subject. It is unconscionable that our social discourse about “moral values” should proceed without discussion of the obligation to protect the dignity and bodies of prisoners, no matter how dangerous or loathsome the acts they are purported to have carried out. And, in most instances we must say “purported”; as very few cases have been properly adjudicated.
We have been treated to a generation of conservative pastors and para-church ministry leaders blithely assure us that the only thing religious voters cared about were two particular hot-button social issues. This has never been the case, of course, and thankfully this supposed monopoly has begun to break up. But now more than ever it is urgent that media and political leaders hear that religious Americans oppose torture, before the Bush administration policies are written into conventional doctrine.
A group of religious bloggers has begun a program to do just that. We are calling on those who claim to represent people of faith to reject torture firmly and thoroughly, and to call on other leaders to do the same. We expect, furthermore, that torture be discussed whenever “values” are talked about in the public sphere.
It is time, it is past time, to move beyond the appalling silliness that has been the 2008 presidential campaign to talk about matters of real substance. That means challenging prominent representatives of the faith community to step up to the microphone and state the obvious truth: that torture is and never was compatible with any religious vision of the treatment of human beings, and that it is and never was compatible with American values.
It also means pushing the media to go beyond soundbite theology and simplistic questions to candidates about symbolism to ask the difficult, challenging questions about torture and its place in American life.
We can no longer afford to allow our religious and media elites to politely sidestep the question of torture. They have enabled it passively for long enough. Either they need to reject it, or they need to own it.