The Senate Democrats’ recent “torture” report denouncing enhanced interrogation of terror suspects after 9-11 has ignited strong echoing support from many religious voices.
Typical for some has been nondenominational pastor and writer Brian Zahnd, who declared emphatically: “You cannot be Christian and support torture. I want to be utterly explicit on this point. There is no possibility of compromise.”
Perhaps it is that simple, but nearly all Christians prior to the last couple hundred years or less likely supported without much question harsh practices now considered torture, including Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, Thomas More, and John Calvin among many others. Providentially democratic regimes in the modern era typically regard extreme cruelty by the state as unacceptable, but modesty about our contemporary moral superiority is in order.
A recent poll, to the exasperation of critics, shows most American Catholics, Protestants, and Evangelicals think enhanced interrogation was justified after 9-11. Many of these
religious critics resort to absolutist pacifist arguments, with Zahnd arguing: “Christians are called by Jesus to imitate a God who is kind and merciful to the wicked.” This stance rejects all force, and confuses the Savior’s divine salvific vocation with the state’s divine mandate for order and justice. Zahnd melodramatically demands Christians “follow Jesus Christ or Dick Cheney,” amid overheated rhetoric about the idolatries of “empire” and “security.”
Not all religious critics of enhanced interrogation are pacifists, of course, but all seem to adopt a strict dogmatism that likely exceeds historic Christian ethics. Jean Bethke Elshtain, who died last year, was a renowned Christian ethicist, a Lutheran who became Catholic, who taught at the University of Chicago. In a 2009 PBS interview she averred that “torture is something that should be ruled out as a general norm” but cited “certain very specific and tragic circumstances,” and “severe forms of interrogation that may well fall short of torture as we usually understand it but are certainly severe.” Indeed, “harrowing judgments must be made by those we tax with the responsibility of keeping us safe, and at those times there may be a ‘lesser evil’ kind of calculation to be made.”
In a 2004 essay called “Reflection on the Problem of ‘Dirty Hands’” (available here), Elshtain warned against a rigid moralism in favor of a nuanced “casuistry” on enhanced interrogation. Noting the difference between slaps and sleep deprivation versus bodily mutilation, she reasoned that conflating all coercion with “torture” evinces an “indiscriminate moralism and legalism—a kind of deontology run amok.” And she inveighed against a “stringent moral and legal rectitude” that prioritizes “purity” above human lives.
“Rule-mania and the moralism that flows from it aims to insulate the statesperson from any tragic dimension: if one just follows the rules, one’s conscience is clear,” Elshtain observed. “But the route of concrete responsibility, or neighbor-regard in Christian moral teaching, suggests another and more difficult path.” She opposed legalizing torture, which “partakes of the same moralistic-legalism as the statesperson who values his pure conscience above all else and who will not violate a moral norm under any circumstances,” and which would “insulate political and military leaders from the often harsh demands of necessity by up-ending the moral universe: that which is rightly taboo now becomes just another piece in the armamentarium of the state.”
Elshtain suggested a “certain asceticism is required of those who may be required, in a dangerous and extreme situation, to temporarily override a general prohibition,” which should be neither legalized nor normalized. She cited Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the anti-Nazi martyr who supported assassinating Hitler, whose central question was not “What is the right thing for me to do?” but rather “What is to come?” She defined this sort of casuistry as retaining the norm while admitting it may be violated in extreme circumstances.
“Far greater moral guilt falls on a person in authority who permits the deaths of hundreds of innocents rather than choosing to ‘torture’ one guilty or complicit person,” Elshtain concluded. “One hopes and prays such occasions emerge only rarely,” she insisted, while hoping for officials who choose human life over their own ostensible “moral purity.” Rejecting all “coercive interrogation is to lapse into a legalistic version of pietistic rigorism in which one’s own moral purity is ranked above other goods,” which is “a form of moral laziness,” repairing to a “code rather than grappling with a terrible moral dilemma.”
According to Elshtain, the “neighbor-regard in Christian moral thinking ranks concrete responsibility ahead of rigid rule-following,” and seeks to “make life at least slightly more just or, to cast it negatively, slightly less unjust.” This admitted casuistry from Elshtain contrasts vividly with the more simplistic “what-would-Jesus-do” assertions from Zahnd and others. But for now, most average American Christians seem to intuit a preference for Elshtain’s form of reasoning over the strident moralism that condemns without sympathy difficult decisions in the terrifying days after 9-11.
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