America's Conscience?

Diana Butler Bass for Beliefnet:

Earlier this week, the Pew Research Center released a survey on the views of religious Americans regarding torture. They survey found that white evangelical Protestants were the most supportive of torture--only 16% of evangelicals reject the use of torture. A whopping 62% of white evangelical Protestants think that torture is justified in most or many circumstances. Since the findings became public, numerous columnists, pundits, and bloggers have opined on why evangelicals support torture.

The unaddressed question is, however, why white mainline Protestants--those belonging to the historic "brand name" churches--do not support torture. Indeed, approximately twice as many mainline Protestants (31%) believe that torture is never justified and an additional 22% think it is almost always wrong. Their attitude toward torture is nearly opposite of evangelical Protestant opinion. More than half of mainline Protestants reject the use of torture against other human beings as justifiable means to political ends. They are the religious community most strongly opposed to torture.

Despite the fact that evangelicals garner most media attention, they do not represent the entire Protestant community. Depending upon what survey one believes, mainline Protestant churches--even after many years of numerical decline, internal struggles, and bad press--still comprise somewhere between 15-20% of the American population. The Pew survey on torture makes it startlingly clear why mainline Protestantism remains an important constituency in American political life: Mainline Protestants are the nation's moral conscience.

Comments (2)

Actually, I beg to differ--mainline Protestants are a HUGE part of the problem. Apparently 69% of us think that torture can sometimes be justified.

We may look slightly better than evangelicals, but we ought to have no pride in those numbers. Apparently we are not teaching the Gospel of our Lord, who told us to turn the other cheek when we are struck and to give our cloak also when our shirt is demanded.

The bishops in the Episcopal Church, and those of us in the pews, should be shamed by those numbers and the "truth" that they represent. We are a group of "Christians" that overwhelmingly believes it is acceptable to torture our enemies under some or all circumstances.

Surely Jesus weeps--both for our willingness to tolerate or condone such evil and for the fact that our churches and those who lead us have done so little to teach us one of the most basic tenets of the Christian faith: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

Paige Baker

Right on, Paige!

I do wonder about whether "moral conscience of the nation" rhetoric doesn't betray a longing for Christendom, which many of us don't think is coming back.

Those who haven't should really take a look at William Cavanaugh's Torture and Eucharist. Excommunication is called for and vigorous public witness. The mainline churches fell far short of this standard.

A list of his shorter writings available online is currently being updated. They are at

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