Banning Torture

February 16, 2008

On Wednesday the U.S. Senate finally passed legislation banning waterboarding and other forms of torture (the House did so in December). That is the good news. The bad news, however, comes in several forms. First, it only passed 51-45 on a mostly partisan vote. Nearly half of our nation's senators voted against the bill to force the CIA to follow international treaties and take the moral high ground. It is particularly sad that most of the opposition came from those who claim to be the party of values. Second, President George W. Bush has promised to veto the legislation and a veto override seems unlikely. He continues to play definitional games by claiming that waterboarding is merely an "enhanced interrogation technique." Third, this comes on the heels of the CIA finally admitting that they have indeed waterboarded three individuals during the Bush administration. The news that our nation tortured people should be upsetting to all Americans, but sadly has not sparked much outrage or made this issue a primary one in political debates.

David Gushee has an excellent Associated Baptist Press column on the subject that is entitled "Torture is the bone caught in America's throat." Gushee has helped lead the way in offering a prophetic Christian challenge on the issue of torture, such as with the Evangelical Declaration Against Torture. I got a a signed copy of his latest book, The Future of Faith in American Politics, at the recent Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant. The book includes a chapter on torture and reprints the evangelical declaration. Here are a few highlights from his ABP piece:

It is clear to me that the problem of torture is like a bone caught in our national throat. We can't swallow it, but we can't quite spit it out. And so we are choking on it.

... However, the fight against torture is not over until it is really over. This will require the ongoing efforts of advocates to help cement a cultural, religious and ethical consensus against torture over the next year or more. If our nation does elect an anti-torture president, we will still need to help that person implement their intentions into law. And this will require strong support from Baptist and evangelical communities, which have not broadly engaged this issue.

That is not entirely true. Many influential voices in the national (and international) evangelical community have come out strongly against any resort to torture. Many mobilized around our 2007 "Evangelical Declaration Against Torture," which can still be signed at

Few of those hundreds of signatories are Baptists -- as of now. The stance of the official Southern Baptist Convention leadership was signaled by attacks on the declaration through Baptist Press, with no opportunity given to me or anyone else involved with the declaration to respond.

I am more surprised by the silence from moderate Baptist leaders and the centrist-progressive kinds of Baptists who gathered at the New Baptist Covenant meeting. It is my hope that their general silence on torture does not signal consent or acquiescence but simply a lack of focus amid other pressing issues.

A religious community that selected Luke 4 as its central text, that lifted up Jesus Christ our tortured Savior and Lord, and that emphasized peace, justice and mercy, cannot be sanguine about our national use of torture in the war on terror, can it?
His call for Baptists and other evangelicals to not only oppose torture but to not remain silent about the issue is one I hope will be followed (I critiqued Christian leaders who condone torture in an Ethics Daily column entitled "Tortured theology"). With the recent news about torture it almost seems as if our nation is losing its moral conscience. Perhaps that is because those who are supposed to be the conscience are too silent.