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Baptists’ Differing Views on Senate Torture Report

Baptist leaders offered a variety of responses to the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee’s long-awaited report on the U.S. use of torture during the George W. Bush administration.
While the full 6,000-page report is classified, a 525-page summary was released on Tuesday.

The report found that CIA leaders misled the public, used torture more frequently than previously reported, and used harsh torture practices not previously exposed.

After Republicans pulled out of the investigation, Democratic senators continued to research and write the report.

Roy Medley, general secretary of American Baptist Churches, USA, joined other religious leaders who responded to the torture report by strongly denouncing torture.

“My heart is grieved that in our name others were tortured,” he said. “Torture is contrary to every principle of the Christian faith. … May God give us the moral courage to never again betray the core principles that have guided our nation as a leader in the struggle for human rights.”

The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) published a piece about the Senate report on its Canon and Culture website.

Written by ERLC Director of Communications Joe Carter, the piece notes the CIA “repeatedly lied about brutal techniques that were both ineffective and illegal.”

In the piece, Carter explained how waterboarding is torture and took a strong position against torture. He also argued torture is not effective, which the Senate report also contends.

“Torture is an ineffective interrogation technique,” Carter wrote. “While it makes no difference to the moral calculus, it is important to note that torture has never been proven to be effective.”

“In our attempts to dehumanize our enemy, we end up becoming less than human ourselves,” he added. “It would be a Pyrrhic victory to save civilization and lose our humanity.”

Most Southern Baptist leaders remained quiet on the topic. The SBC’s Baptist Press ignored the Senate’s “torture report.”

ERLC President Russell Moore remained mostly silent about the report, offering just a couple of tweets about Carter’s piece and another anti-torture column.

A prolific tweeter, Moore wrote more tweets about movies and TV shows than torture in the 24 hours following the report’s release.

Despite his quiet approach on the topic, Moore’s tweets clearly condemn torture. His former boss, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Al Mohler, spoke much more about the report but took a different ethical stance.

Mohler devoted much of his daily podcast on Wednesday to criticizing the release of the Senate report.

He described it as a “highly partisan” report “that originated in a partisan controversy.” Mohler also argued that the release of information would hurt the U.S.

After spending most of his time denouncing the release of the report, Mohler finally addressed the substance of the report itself.

Mohler suggested that “enhanced interrogation techniques” – a Bush-era euphemism for torture – might not always be torture. He also argued torture might be morally justifiable on rare occasions.

“Is torture ever justified?” Mohler asked during his podcast. “And the answer to that must be almost assuredly no. No policy should ever justify the use of torture under any circumstance for any reason.”

Mohler then equivocated by suggesting torture might be justified at times, thus demonstrating why he said “almost.”

“But as Augustine, that great church father of the fifth century helped us to understand, in a fallen world even policies often fall apart in light of horrifying challenges,” Mohler added. “Sometimes that which is not policy, in which no policy should ever allow, happens because it simply is required by the circumstances in terms of an even more horrifying evil.”

Mohler does not explain why he believes justifying torture in certain circumstances is more moral when it is done in violation of official policy.

As Mohler ended his discussion on the topic, he again offered a denouncement of torture followed by a muddled justification of it that appears to use ends-justify-the-means and lesser-of-two-evils arguments.

“[F]rom a Christian worldview perspective, we must understand there is no Christian rationale for the use of torture under any circumstances imaginable,” Mohler said. “But Christians must also be very candid and honest to say that we can conceive that there just might be circumstances in something like the war on terror in which one horrifyingly, even immoral thing, may be outweighed by an even more horrifying more immoral reality.”

Mohler previously backed the use of torture when the topic arose during the Bush administration.

He argued in 2006 “that there could exist circumstances in which such uses of torture might be made necessary.”

Although Mohler at that time also supported a proposal to ban torture from official policy, he claimed that “under extreme circumstances” it “may be transcended by other moral claims.”

Two SBC seminary professors joined Mohler in 2006 in supporting the use of torture.

Daniel Heimbach, professor of Christian ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Kenneth Magnuson, then-associate professor of Christian ethics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, both claimed torture could be ethically and morally justified.

Moore’s predecessor at the helm of the ERLC, Richard Land, at times defended torture before finally condemning it in 2009.

Other conservative Christian leaders supported the Bush administration’s use of torture, including James Dobson.

A 2009 Pew Research Center Forum on Religion and Public Life study found that 62 percent of white evangelicals supported torturing suspected terrorists. Only 49 percent of all Americans backed torture.

While Mohler and others defended the use of torture during the Bush administration, EthicsDaily.com ran numerous articles and columns critiquing the use of torture and the claims of its proponents.

Brian Kaylor is a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com. You can follow him on Twitter @BrianKaylor.