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Austin Cline

Who Would Jesus Waterboard? Southern White Evangelicals & Torture

By September 20, 2008

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'Waterboard Thrill Ride' by Steve Powers, August 14, 2008
'Waterboard Thrill Ride' by Steve Powers
August 14, 2008
Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images
There is no way to put a genuinely positive spin on this news, which may be why it's not being reported on very widely by the mainstream news media in America. According to commissioned by Faith in Public Life and Mercer University, Americans are among the most supportive of torturing prisoners and, in America, 57% white evangelical Christians say that torture is sometimes or often justified. Significantly more Democrats, liberals, and independents answer that torture is rarely or never justified.

That's right, the Americans who are most likely to portray themselves as the moral foundations of society and to decry the immoral influence of secular atheists are also the most likely to approve of using torture against other human beings. Homosexuality, abortion, gay marriage, church/state separation, and similar symptoms of modernity are all evil works of Satan that will lead Americans to hell, but torture... well, that's OK, isn't it?

The findings of this poll, which did not define torture, compared to a Pew Research Center poll from February that found that 48 percent of the general public think torture can be justified. The new poll found that 44 percent of white Southern evangelicals rely on life experiences and common sense to determine their views about torture. A lower percentage, 28 percent, said they relied on Christian teachings or beliefs.

Source: Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

In what strikes me as a desperate attempt to find some sort of good news in this, the polling group reports that just over half — 52% — of white evangelicals realize that torture might be bad if reminded of the Golden Rule and thus forced to think about Americans being tortured. Pollsters apparently tried to offer several different moral models to get white evangelicals to rethink their support for torture, but they had no success until they got people to think of themselves on the rack rather than unknown, unnamed, and faceless foreigners.

I'd argue that this is just more reason for criticism because it's a sign of selfishness — those who changed their answer don't object to torture intrinsically or when it only happens to foreigners. It's only when faced with the possibility of Americans being subjected to torture that it becomes a problem — and even then, barely more than half of white evangelicals object. This means that 43% (instead of 57%!) still think that torture is sometimes or often justified against other Americans. Does this make you feel safer? I certainly don't feel any safer.

And just whom do you think these white evangelicals are supporting for President of the United States of America?

Pollsters also found that 53 percent of white Southern evangelicals believe the government uses torture in its anti-terrorism campaign, despite claims by government officials to the contrary. About one-third, or 32 percent, said the government does not use torture as a matter of policy.

Researchers also found that 65 percent of white Southern evangelicals support McCain, 14 percent support Obama and 21 percent remain undecided.

The Bush administration has denied that it uses torture against anyone, even faceless foreigners, but almost as many white evangelicals think Bush is lying about this as think that using torture against foreigners is a good thing. There has to be some overlap, but how much? Do most of those who support torture believe the Bush administration and thus wish America would get tougher with foreigners? Do most of those who are against torture think Bush administration is lying and wish that they would stop using torture? Or is it the other way around?

With the second set of figures, the overlap is probably easier to guess. John McCain used to be against torture when he still remembered what it was like happening to him, but now that he is grasping at ultimate power he doesn't care and is in favor of torture (or his memory of torture disappeared down the same hole as his memory of where Spain is located). White evangelicals who think that torture is rarely or never justified are probably not supporting John McCain in large numbers, but those evangelicals who are inclined to cheer on the use of torture are probably in the dwindling crowds cheering on John McCain's campaign speeches... which are a form of torture themselves.

September 20, 2008 at 4:56 pm
(1) Pearl Ostroff says:

This is revolting. These people should be ashamed of themselves. McCain should be ashamed of himself.

I’m a Canadian and I think our current prime minister approves of torture, but wouldn’t say so. Most Canadians, I suspect, don’t. We are in the middle of an election, and Harper, the present PM, is approaching the possibility of a majority government. I shudder to think of what will happen if he gets it.

September 20, 2008 at 10:08 pm
(2) 411314 says:

“…but now that he is grasping at ultimate power he doesn’t care and is in favor of torture”.

Just curious, are you only referring to his vote against than anti-torture bill, or is there something else he said or did that I missed?

September 20, 2008 at 10:10 pm
(3) 411314 says:

Sorry, I put “than” where I meant “that”. I’m not implying it’s okay if that bill is the only thing you’re referring to, I’m just curious.

September 20, 2008 at 10:31 pm
(4) Dewhurst says:

I have to admit to being somewhat terrified by this revelation. Although, not quite as terrified as I was when I heard the announcement that Palin was going to be McCain’s running mate. Perhaps my senses have been deadened, post-Announcement.

Is it OK to feel sad? I do.

September 21, 2008 at 8:51 am
(5) Concerned citizen says:

McCain’s flipflop criticized by interrogator in a recent article here: http://thephoenix.com/Providence/News/68554-McCains-crooked-talk-on-torture/

September 29, 2008 at 8:03 pm
(6) Renee K. says:

Austin, if it makes you feel any better, I’m a white person, born and raised in the southern US, and I’m a lifelong, hardcore atheist.

I try to like your blog, but it is upsetting to read over and over again how horrible everyone and everything is in the south. And yes, I know you will say that you never said we’re “all” like that, but that’s the implication.

September 29, 2008 at 8:16 pm
(7) Austin Cline says:

I try to like your blog, but it is upsetting to read over and over again how horrible everyone and everything is in the south. And yes, I know you will say that you never said we’re “all” like that, but that’s the implication.

In this post about the results of a survey, all but one use of the word “south” are in the quotes from the survey and all the uses are adjectives modifying the noun “evangelicals.” Outside of the title, I don’t say anything about people from the south. So not only have I never said anything about “all” people in the south, here I’ve barely said anything about any people in the south.

So where exactly is this implication coming from?

Update: I decided I should find out if I really am writing about the south much more often and much more negatively than I realize. Perhaps I’m giving readers an unintended impression? I don’t want to seem like I’m just dismissing your concern out of hand. That’s not an easy thing to figure out, though, but I did a search for “south” and found 100 posts that use the word at all. Out of around 18,000, that doesn’t seem very excessive to me. Does it sound like a lot to you? Given the importance of southern religious beliefs and traditions, could I write about it much less?

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