Waterboarding - Christians and tortureA new Pew survey reveals something not-all-that-shocking: people who attend church at least once a week are more likely to say torture is "often" or "sometimes" justifiable. And those who identify as evangelicals are even more likely than mainline Protestants or other denominations.

Considering that evangelicals supported President Bush the Iraq war more than any other demographic, this is hardly a surprise. The popular notion that Christianity is a feel-good pacifist religion that would never support war or torture is obviously silly, but the Christian right's almost cheerleaderish embrace of national violence seems a bit hard to explain. (To be fair, a good 44% of weekly churchgoers say torture is rarely or ever justified, so this is by no means everyone.) Percentages aside, why are Christians always a healthy margin ahead of the rest of the country when it comes to waging war or brutally interrogating prisoners?

Two half-baked but possible explanations:

- Christianity has just as much emphasis – if not more – on justice as mercy, and its personal commands to be merficul do not necessarily apply to states and governments. Thus, churchgoers tend to have more binary understandings of good and evil, and are less squeamish about what they perceive to be justice.

- A high percentage of evangelicals live in the South and other rural regions where popular sentiment is more antagonistic toward nations and ethnicities believed to be "anti-American." War and torture is much more compatible with their general support for strong national defense.

We haven't really had the Christianity and torture debate here, and I suppose it could be a rather vicious one. But what I mostly want to know is this: Christians, as documented by the numbers and overwhelming anecdotal/cultural corroboration, do not tend to be bothered by war or violence. Why? Is there a simple factual, regional, or demographic explanation? Is it a well-considered support, or an outgrowth of fear, racism, or bloodlust?

[via Marc Ambinder]

About The Author

David Sessions

David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol, and is currently a doctoral student in modern European history at Boston College. His writing has appeared in The Daily Beast, Newsweek, Jacobin, Slate and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter here.

35 Responses to Christians More Likely to Support Torture

  1. emelina says:

    I think it has more to do with your first argument and the idea that torture/war against evil regimes ends up protecting innocent people in the long run.

    Is that good argument? I’m not convinced.

  2. Nathan says:

    Being against torture I can kill the debate pretty quick with another Christian by just saying that we prosecuted Japanese war-criminals after WWII for waterboarding, and that at the time it was called torture, not “enhanced interrogation.”

    How can we take the moral high ground of the “war on terror” when we ourselves use the same tactics (albeit to a lesser degree)?

  3. Monica says:

    I believe it is moral for one terrorist to feel uncomfortable for a relatively short period of time if it will save 1 or thousands of people, especially in the U.S. and plausibly worldwide. I believe Git’mo should have been left open.

  4. David says:

    I don’t think anyone would object to torturing one terrorist if innocent lives would be saved. But the issue is that we often don’t know whether or not that’s the case when it comes time to interrogate, and increasing evidence from the inside is saying that we found out little or nothing from people that were waterboarded dozens of times. And Nathan is right – if it’s known that the U.S. military tortures, our soldiers will be in even more danger when they are taken prisoner.

    From an abstract ethical perspective, we have to know what we will and will not do as a country before the heat of the moment, regardless of the lives at stake. I would never argue that no situation justifies torture, just that these are things everyone – especially Christians, who have so much to say about humane practices in other ares – should take very, very seriously and cautiously.

  5. stephen c. berry says:

    tell me: Who Would Jesus Torture?

  6. Lloyd says:

    Perhaps the answer can be found in the book of Romans. Chapter 13 starts off by saying;
    “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God.”
    That is a bit to think about. At first, you might think, Well, that’s easy enough when the government is sympathetic with your beliefs and supports your lifestyle but surely it doesn’t mean to submit to the likes of a Hitler or a Stalin does it? In fact it does. When these words were penned by the Apostle Paul, Nero was the emperor of Rome. He was using oil soaked Christians as Tiki lights for his garden parties and the score down at the arena was usually Lions 10 – Christians 0 on any given night. So as much as is possible without going directly against the stated law of God a Christian is enjoined to obey the government. If he finds it necessary to defy the government to obey God, then he needs to be ready to accept the consequences. If, for instance, you are ordered to worship the human authority or be shot at sunrise, you might spend the evening painting a bullseye on the front of your Teeshirt.
    Romans 13 goes on to say quite a bit more about the relationship between a Christian and the government, I recommend the reading…but an inference can be drawn that a Christian is submissive to his government because he really believes that the government does the will of God whether it intends to or not.

  7. Sandra Brown says:

    This is a perfect example of why Gandhi made this statement. like your Christ, “I do not like your Christians . Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

  8. Jarrett says:

    To further complicate the picture, I want to go a few verses farther into Romans 13, that Lloyd referenced above. I went to a Christian high school where you had to write Romans 13 by hand in detention to remind you of your need to submit to authorities. So these words are well in-grained in my head, for good or for bad: “For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong…But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities (Rom. 13:3a,4b-5a).”

    What does it mean that Paul seems to think governments are divinely ordained to use “terror” to insure behavioral compliance with the national laws? This passage presents a major challenge to a Christian pacificist worldview. Paul seems to think that governments operate in a different ethical realm where they are divinely ordained to use violent force to deter crime and protect national order. How, though, would a passage like this be applied to torture? Thinking back to my experiences in high school, the school authorities certainly misused this passage in an attempt to pacify rebellious students.

  9. Matt Ralph says:

    It sounds to me like a lot of so-called pro-life evangelical Christians spend more time watching 24 than they do reading scripture and sadly end up believing in a fictional TV show more than they do the words of Christ they supposedly profess to be true.

  10. Rachel says:

    In my opinion, it is NEVER right to torture anyone, regardless of who they are or what they’ve done. What gives YOU (a sinner) the right to torture another human being (who is also a sinner)?! What makes your sin any less than another man’s sin?

    And I have to agree with Stephen Berry, “Who would Jesus torture?” No one.

  11. Mike Licht says:

    Today is Law Day. Observe it by enforcing these statutes:

    United States Code, Title 18, 2441: War Crimes
    United States Code, Title 18, 2340A: Torture



  12. Kirk says:


    While it is true that we are to subject ourselves to governing authorities, the fact that we live in a republic adds a layer of complication to submission. The constitution, which is the closest thing that we have to a governing authority in the traditional sense, makes no specific mention of torture. It does, however, provide you and I a medium, via democratic and legal process, to voice our opinions on the direction that our country has taken. It encourages citizens to participate in government. Accordingly, couldn’t we say that submission to our governing authority would be participation in the process? The means voicing your opinions, whether pro or con, on important issues like torture. So, saying “What our government is doing is wrong” is not a failure to submit, at all. Quite the opposite, in fact.

    That being said, addressing state sponsored torture is a difficult moral question. This notion that water boarding one man can save a thousand is extremely far fetched, as many have pointed out. I think the fact that while we see God justifying things like war and assassination, but never see Him advocating torture is telling. This could be for simple practical reasons (ie torture fails to provide reliable intel) or for moral reasons. I think that it’s more a matter of best practice. Torturing hurts the US’ international position in that it makes people angry at us and makes it difficult for us to take the high ground on human rights issues. From what we can tell, it doesn’t actually get us much good information. Accordingly, we should stop torturing.

    As far as Christians are concerned, I see a lot of people taking joy in hearing about the interrogations of terrorists and insurgents. I would argue that this leans towards bloody mindedness which is a sin. Bloody mindedness, in general, is something that the modern evangelical church needs to take a good look at. I think it’s been forgotten.

  13. Alisa says:

    I’m reading Tim Keller’s book, “Reason for God” right now, and he says that the Christian worldview is less violent and vengeful because Christians believe that ultimately, justice is up to God. So when you say, “I don’t think anyone would object to torturing one terrorist if innocent lives would be saved,” I have to disagree. From a Christian standpoint, that’s not justified. There’s a clear difference between torture and justice. Justice has a set process, and it punishes once for a crime committed. Torture is not punishment for a crime —- it’s continued cruelty (and I think a continued violating of the image of God) to get something from someone.

    So even if we can save the innocent by being cruel to the guilty, we’re not supposed to repay evil with evil, and we don’t have to because justice is not ultimately our job. It’s God’s.

    It’s very hard – maybe impossible – for me to understand any support for torture being rooted in a Christian ethic. I think in this case, Christians are not thinking like Christians.

  14. Jarrett says:


    I appreciate your response. I think you get to the real heart of the matter when you use the phrase “state sponsored torture.” I agree with other posts that the ethics of Christ absolutely prohibit this kind of behavior. All that love your enemies and love others as you love yourself stuff would certainly make torture incompatible with Christlike behavior. But is the secular state bound by this kind of morality? Why should the secular state even give a rip about Christlike ethics? In fact in a postmodern and pluralist society, who’s to say that the state has to play by anybody’s moral standards? Do secular governments in some sense operate above morality?

    You remind us, though, that we live in a democratic republic. So as long as Christians live in the US, the US government should care about a Christian moral perspective on issues such as torture. I think a lot of times we fail to understand the political and ethical context of Romans 13. Rome wouldn’t have cared at all about Christian morality. They operated in a totally different ethical sphere and the early Christians just had to deal with that. But this raises one last question, does the American government operate in a non-Christian sphere where its actions are not necessarily subject to the critique of Christian morality? Much of what has been posted on here seems to still assume that we are somehow a “Christian nation,” whether that means liberal or conservative Christian doesn’t matter. So I think it is possible for Christians to both denounce torture on the basis of the ethics of Christ and allow that the secular government may have to take actions incompatible with Christian morality.

  15. Pro-lifers believe “24” over real life? Christians embrace torture with a cheerleader-like mentality? Really? Is that what the survey said?

    I see a lot of unfounded accusations here. Is that any better than, say, claiming all Muslims are terrorists?

  16. nathan says:

    “In the first public comment by any CIA officer involved in handling high-value al Qaeda targets, John Kiriakou, now retired, said the technique broke Zubaydah in less than 35 seconds…The next day, he told his interrogator that Allah had visited him in his cell during the night and told him to cooperate,”

    the question is not if christians should approve of torture, on a moral level, but whether torture is something that can be justified on a governmental level, specifically towards non-citizens. I’m not a fan of torture, I don’t delight in it, but I don’t want to be blind towards the potential benefits either.

    It’s an ignorant approach to approve of “whatever methods it might take to get the towelheads to talk,” but it’s also ignorant to pretend that torture is something that is never effective. It seems like an overreaching reaction on the part of some conservatives to just blithely toss out, “Who Would Jesus Torture?” rather than recognizing the fact that the government is held to a different standard than the church. I’m against torture almost entirely, but this type of cliche, conservative reaction to previous generations of conservatives is just disgusting. Have fun with that, but don’t forget, these men are evil, this religion is evil, and the greater ignorance is pretending like orthodox Islam can peaceably exist in a democratic world.

  17. Andy says:

    Alisa, your comment about violating the image of God sparked my curiosity. Can a human lose the image of God? Can they throw it away? I think maybe they can. I think someone bent on killing dozens, hundreds, thousands, or millions of other people has cast the image of God from himself and has become something less than human. I think they have replaced the image of God with the image of Satan—or, if you prefer, of evil and darkness.

    I also think your understanding of repaying evil for evil and your sense of God’s justice is a bit like the Pharisee’s understanding of the Sabbath in the New Testament. Remember when they got all upset because Jesus healed on the Sabbath, and he asked them what was lawful to do on the Sabbath: evil or good, to save life or to kill? They had it all backwards because they thought keeping Sabbath was more important than healing. But Jesus demonstrated that sometimes you have to break the law in order to keep the law.

    I see the same thing in play in regards to torture (given that the only acceptable scenario possible is of obtaining critical information that will save lives). If lives are at stake, and someone is in custody who has critical information that would save those lives, yet refuses to cooperate, then you should do whatever you need to do to get that information. Allowing innocent people to die because you are unwilling to torture a man who has already chosen his fate is, I believe, the greater sin.

    What liberals and pacifists don’t understand is that evil men are relentless and bloodthirsty because the one whose image they have chosen to bear is relentless and bloodthirsty. Evil men bent on violence and murder do not respond to dialogue, bribes, or psychotherapy. They respond to fear, force and strength of will.

  18. Mark P says:

    “What makes your sin any less than another man’s sin?”

    Well, I have yet to plot the mass murder of innocents. Yes, I know, “all have fallen short.” But I think that kind of trendy moral equivocation is bad news.

    I agree with Alisa’s ideas about God’s justice. We often think of the purpose of the law as the establishment of perfect justice, but that’s not for this life. All we have is the pursuit of justice by reducing injustice. The attempt to create perfect justice in the world leads to a lot of horrific damage, like “making the world safe for democracy.”…

  19. Anthony LeTourneau says:

    Andy, The problem is you do not know wether or not that the torture will provide “valuable” information until after the torture has begun…. Therefore leaving room to torture anyone to get any information.

    I think your understanding of Jesus’ instructions on healing on the sabbath is profoundly flawed. You actually used Jesus healing on the sabbath to justify torture…. Think about how inconsistent that argument is.

    Jesus said. “Love your enemies” PERIOD.

  20. Andy says:

    Anthony, I’m keenly aware of that irony, and I understand why you would see that as flawed. The point I was making was that Jesus broke a fundamental ethical rule (Sabbath-keeping, which for the Pharisees, was crucial to their understanding of keeping Torah and, for some, of ushering in the age of Messiah) in order to uphold the most basic of moral laws—the saving of lives. The juxtaposition of healing and torture is difficult, I know, but I could have just as easily used the story of Jesus and the disciples picking heads of grain in the field. The point is that Jesus broke the Sabbath (a most sacred rule in that culture) to keep the greater law, which was saving lives.

    Jesus did say, “Love your enemies,” but I don’t think he intended that to become state policy. Nor do I think he meant for it to be your guiding principle when dealing with people whose sole intent is to kill you, your loved ones, or other innocent people. I don’t know if you have children, but I have two little ones. And I know that in the EXTREMELY UNLIKELY scenario that something should happen to them, I would do everything that I can to protect them, because that is my promise to them as their father. If it comes down to choosing between loving my children and loving my enemies, my children will win every time.

    As far as the state is concerned, loving your enemies simply isn’t a viable option, because, in cases like this, loving your enemies means you’re forsaking your promise to serve and protect your citizens. I suppose that every state is free to decide how far they keep that promise, and for some torture might be too far. (I’m assuming that by torture we mean waterboarding, which, when compared to the rack, or the cross, or other methods of torture, seems almost humane.) But the state bears the sword for a reason, and that reason is to punish evil-doers and to protect those who obey the laws. That’s just the way the world works, for now.

    Look, it’s not like I’m saying torture is a good thing. It’s a horrible thing. Just like war. But for as long as there are evil men in the world bent on killing others on a grand scale, it may be the only means (and always a last resort) of saving lives.

  21. Anthony LeTourneau says:

    Andy, this is not eazy and the thought of laying down ones life is the most difficult thing Christ asked of us in following him. You agree that Christ did in fact say to “love our enemies” means you can’t just explain it away because it is hard. I am not saying that I welcome such a sacrifice…However, the Apostle Paul did say that he..“gloried in the fellowship of His sufferings”

    Jesus also asked us to lay down our lives and follow him to the cross. The book of Hebrews 11:35f outline the horrors endured by those who followed Christ. They endured by faith.

    My question to you is what did they have faith in. God’s power or Man’s power?

  22. carissa abrego says:

    Whoa, I really don’t think that even the stereotypical Southern Baptist that everybody’s picturing is “not bothered by war or violence.”

    Interacting with the thoughts you tossed out—Perhaps it’s the justice thing, yeah. Perhaps also, following that line of thought, it’s that evangelicals <i>feel</i> (whether they are or not) marginalized by the culture and smothered by over-the-top “tolerance”, and see themselves as needing to counterbalance that to maintain sanity. Perhaps.

    But just to be fair, I think that many wise, thinking Christians throughout history have been non-pacifist (which is NOT the same as warmongering), just as other wise Christians have had strong pacifist convictions. C.S. Lewis has some very good, clear thinking on when and why war might be justified; Charles Krauthammer (though I’m not sure of his religious beliefs) also has reasonably discussed the strict conditions under which torture MAY be justifiable.

    I encourage people to read more on the topic, rather than loosely-biblical philosophizing and prooftexting at one another. Some of these articles believe in justifiable torture, while others are against it in every case.




  23. David Clark says:

    If you bother to look at the original Pew data and error percentages you will see that almost none of the differences are statistically significant.
    If you look at the Pew fellows list you will see that it consists of a bunch of liberal academics pretending to be bipartisan.
    The really interesting question is why are liberals so desperate to smear Christians as torturers when the evidence is non-significant?
    (PS I am an evolutionist and a conservative)

  24. cookie says:

    I don’t know the reason…but just throw them to the lions!

  25. Eric says:

    I think there are a few fundamental differences between the average Christian/conservative and your run of the mill liberal/atheist/agnostic/everyone else(I’ll just use liberal for brevities sake for the rest of the response). The first assumption is correct, Christians believe in good and evil, while liberals do not. Christians cannot, in good conscious, stand by idly while a perceived evil is left to run amok. Therefore, it is easier for a Christian to take action against those that are evil, because they have been taught that evil exists and that it must be confronted. The popular notion that Christianity is a feel-good pacifist religion is based upon ignorant observation, with no true attempt to understand the religion or educate oneself enough to speak intelligently.

    Liberals do not see good and evil, it is inherently impossible to label someone as evil because it requires one to judge another. There is no one who is actually evil, just someone who has been abused and is simple reacting in a negative fashion. This is why liberals do not go to war, they seek resolutions. Unlike Christians, liberals are content to work toward a peaceful solution that respects the different views of the antagonist, seeks to identify what makes them that way, apologize for our flaws, and in general do very little to stop it because it would be unfair to judge them or bully them.

    I think that when it comes to torture you can sum up the differences quite easily.

    A Christian could never look a mother in the eye and say, “I could have saved your sons life, but I would have had to have comprised my morals.”

    A liberal could never a look a mother in the eye and say, “I saved your sons life, but I had to compromise my morals.”

    Christians place a higher value on life, liberals place a higher value on morals.

  26. Michael says:

    I think the simple answer is that the majority of Christians, just like the majority of humans, are ultimately hypocrites who pick and choose what they espouse relative to the situation. This is how some Christians can look you straight in the eye and endorse the Biblical admonition that “it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to get into Heaven” while simultaneously railing against the governments desire to aid the poor at the expense of the rich. This is how a conservative can look you in the eye and claim that he/she is for small government that respects individual rights but then vigorously espouse government intervention into women reproductive systems and everyone else’s bedroom. I think it’s easier for Christians sometimes because organized religion often removes the onus of thinking through moral issues whereas agnosticism/atheism requires that a person find his/her own moral path without simply adhering to whatever the dimwitted parish priest said when one was 11.

  27. David Clark says:

    Throwing Christians to the lions worked well for the Romans! They ended up with sympathy for the martyrs and Christianity as their state religion!

  28. Barbara says:

    As I was reading your article I was reminded of the ten commandments. Then my thoughts went to Jesus when he said to the crowd that was going to stone the adulter to death. He who is without sin cast the first stone.
    Seems to me that no one should be throwing stones, because we are all guilty of sin, but Jesus died for all. They do not believe as Christians believe because they do not believe in Jesus and His ways. Tell me who is the terriorist here. The one that threw the first stone or the one that threw the last one.

  29. Jim says:

    Joining a church and calling yourself “Christian” has little to do with higher moral values. There are enormous social pressures/advantages to being considered a “Christian” in the USA.
    The corrupt preachers (who make millions from donations) are experts in using the bible for emotional manipulation and blackmail.
    A “Christian” is led to believe that morality is synonymous with believing in God and going to church, and that if you don’t do those things you must be bad.
    This makes life much easier for them, but they do not develop any true morals.

    • Dharmesh says:

      The non-Christians I know typically have great repscet for Jesus of Nazareth- they just don’t accept him as the Messiah. As a Christian, I do believe they’re missing the most important part of His teachings, but the best way I know to share the Gospel is by trying my hardest to live by the example He set. It’s my responsibility to let God’s love for the world embodied in Christ’s great sacrifice reflect through my words and actions.

  30. chas mac says:

    I’m enraged and saddened that anybody would stoop so low as to even insinuate that true Christians would accept torture in any manner and still delude themselves that they were t rue christians. The war mongers among us disguised as humans have the resources to create phoney polls that will tell us anything to justify their agenda. I don’t and never will accept that we have the right, in the eyes of god, to torture and abuse human beings for any reason. If you accept torture into your heart you cease being Christian forever.

  31. Jason says:

    @chas mac: +1 bro’. You hit the nail squarely on the head.

  32. What is the “Christian” justification for torture? Who would Jesus anally rape and under what circumstances? These are important questions.

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