Misrepresenting Christians and torture

torture 01Last month, Catholic writer and blogger Eve Tushnet urged us to write more about coverage of the religious debate over the Bush administration's policies regarding torture. For weeks, I looked in vain for the press' treatment of the issue, which has fallen into eclipse. But then evangelicals inaugurated an annual conference about torture and the neo-conservative publication The Weekly Standard wrote about it. Now I had something to write about. As you might guess, writer Mark D. Tooley was not impressed with the conference. He depicted it as little more than a political gathering of liberals rather than as a meeting of religious people opposed to torture and the administration's policies. As he writes in the lede,

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.

Skepticism about a religious-and-political event held less than two months before a presidential election is always warranted. So Tooley can be forgiven for concluding that that organizers and its participants had political goals in mind.

Yet Tooley goes too far: He assumes that the conference had no religious goals in mind. Where Tooley sees only base political motives, he should have seen complexity and nuance, not to mention religion.

For example, does the opposition to torture really represent a turn to the left? Or does it not simply represent a turn to traditional Christianity? After all, a core Judeo-Christian teaching is that humans are not means to an end. Or might the opposition to torture represent an embrace of liberal Christianity, with its goal of human autonomy?

To his credit, Tooley does not eschew nuance altogether. He quotes a critic who raises good questions about anti-torture advocates:

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.

This is fair. According to the Atlanta-Journal Constitution's story about the conference, at least one evangelical pastor agrees that the definition of torture is ambiguous.

Yet Tooley's story lacks not only sufficient nuance but also sufficient fairness.

For example, Tooley misrepresented conference organizer David Gushee's comments about John McCain. Try this contrast. Here is Tooley's version of Gushee's remarks:

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."

And here are Gushee's remarks as reported by the Associated Baptist Press:

"My message to [Illinois] Sen. Barack Obama ... is that you have an opportunity to make torture a moral and, in fact a religious issue--a values issue," said Gushee, who teaches Christian ethics. "This is in your interest, because you are trying to communicate to religious Americans--and especially to evangelicals."

But he warned Obama not to soft-pedal the torture issue in his campaign speeches for fear of alienating middle-of-the-road voters. "I say: Say more about the issue of torture and not less," Gushee said. "Don't run away from the issue."

For McCain, the veteran Arizona senator who endured years of torture while he was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, Gushee had different advice. "I say to Sen. McCain: Make the tie between your personal narrative and your policy stance on human rights perfectly clear," he said.

Gushee, noting that two-thirds of those in the poll who said they were supporting McCain also support torture, added, "Tell your own voters why they are wrong on this issue, and why you are committed to the positions that you have articulated since 2002-2003 on the issue of torture."

During a question-and-answer session, Gushee said he was disappointed with McCain's actions on specific legislation earlier this year that seemed to indicate he was backtracking on his previous anti-torture stance. Gushee said one vote in particular was "grievously disappointing to all who follow ... this battle for our national soul."

Nonetheless, the professor said, McCain's original position on torture is more in line with the candidate's overall message.

"It fits entirely with [McCain's] vision of national honor, it fits entirely with his vision of the discipline and grandeur of the U.S. military," Gushee said. "I think his whole appeal--his whole stated appeal--for his candidacy is a maverick who stands up for what is right. And I want him to be who he says he is."

To me, the ABP story sounds like Gushee chided Obama, too, not just McCain.

Nuance about and fairness toward religion and religious people -- those are supposed to be two values not only of journalists, but also conservatives. Tooley's story simply failed to embody those.

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