White Christians are pro-torture, Nones are anti-. How come?

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Charlemagne finds Roland dead (14th century miniature)


Charlemagne finds Roland dead (14th century miniature)

Charlemagne finds Roland dead (14th century miniature)

Charlemagne finds Roland dead (14th century miniature)

That’s according to a new Washington Post/ABC poll, which asked respondents whether they thought torture was sometimes, often, rarely, or never justified. Sixty-nine percent of white evangelicals, 68 percent of white Catholics, and 63 percent of white non-evangelicals said “sometimes” or “often.” Fifty-eight percent of Nones — those who said they had no religion — said “rarely” or “never.”

It could be argued that these differences have more to do with partisanship than with religious identity. At the extremes of the poll’s demographic spectrum are conservative Republicans (72 percent pro-torture) and liberal Democrats (59 percent anti-). It was the Republican administration of George W. Bush that tortured suspected terrorists and the Democratic administration of Barack Obama that stopped the torturing. White Christians tend to vote Republican and Nones tend to Democratic. Q.E.D.?

I don’t think so. While it would take a regression analysis to determine the precise importance of each variable, religious identity matters, and more than race. (Sixty-one percent of whites are pro-torture, as compared to 51percent of non-whites.) Citizens belong to political parties because of their values as well as their interests. To say that partisanship is responsible for a group’s position on torture begs the question of why the group prefers one party to the other in the first place.

Christians, especially conservative Christians, favorably contrast their own belief in divinely established moral principles to the “situation ethics” of the non-religious. So why are American Christians so much more situational in their approach to torture than American Nones?

“Pagans are wrong, Christians are right,” says Roland, as he prepares to die defending his army against a Muslim onslaught in the medieval Song of Roland. Since 9-11 and in the immediate wake of the CIA torture report, white American Christians have embraced the particularist principle of American Exceptionalism. They’re wrong, we’re right, and therefore we’re justified in proceeding by any means necessary.

American Nones are holding to the neutral principle of Enlightenment morality enunciated in the Declaration of Independence — “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Whoever they think that Creator is, it means that, for most Nones, torture is impermissible under just about all circumstances.

  • Stone

    Some things are just wrong. Slavery is wrong. Torture is wrong.

    Torture is both vile and useless: Those who torture forfeit their humanity; those under torture lie. If the Roman jurist Ulpian saw this plainly in the 3rd century c.e., then why can’t we in the 21st? I’ll tell you why. Our education system stinks. We have no sense of history left, and half-conscious bots thrash around blindly, succumbing to the serpent brain in all of us, the most primitive part of the brain, instead of applying the neo-frontal cortex, the most developed part, to ….. something ……… anything! We now know it’s apparently the neo-frontal cortex that is the most engaged by Buddhist monks at prayer and also by anyone responding with empathy to another’s suffering. So the most evolved part of the brain is especially involved in relationship with the divine and one’s neighbor…………. Hmmm…………….. Now where have I seen those two coupled before? ………. Duh.

    The uneducated zombies in this survey who accept torture are in relationship with the divine like I’m a pig who flies! De-humanized cretins the lot of them.

  • Chaplain Martin

    The headline for this column is: “White Christians are pro-torture, Nones are anti-. How come?” That’s not just a broad statement and question, it is global, no it is so broad it is stated as universal. All this on a Washington Post/ABC poll. What about the other Polls? How were the questions asked? Where these active church members? Where is Pew Research on this issue?

    Well, this is one Christian who is a member of a Baptist Church who is definitely against torture. I can speak for my whole family of seven members (five Christians, two not) who are against torture.

    Is this just another opportunity to give the atheist another shot at those who “say” they are Christians?

    Of course I realize some have sold their souls to the Republican Party line because their faith is so weak and their knowledge of scripture and teachings of Christ is so poor. Some are willing to follow anyone or any group that seem strong and say: “I am for God and you”, or “We are the party of God.”

    Mark, what evidently you don’t get and legions of others don’t get is being a Christian begins and continues with a personal encounter with the mysterious element of the Holy Spirit. This makes each believer have a unique relationship with God which is beyond any natural understanding

  • Doc Anthony

    From the Washington Post article:

    “Democrats who identify as moderate or conservative are more supportive of the (torture) program, joining majorities of independents and Republicans who say it was justified.

    “Those ideological poles at opposite ends of public opinion aren’t that surprising. But the distribution of demographic groups between them is.

    “A majority of nearly every group — non-whites, women, young adults, the elderly, Midwesterners, suburbanites, Catholics, moderates, the wealthy — said that torture of suspected terrorists can be often or sometimes justified.”

    So before anybody tries to boast about their own non-support of torture, or hurl pious insults like “Dehumanized cretins, all of them”, just remember that you are VERY likely talking about some of your own neighbors, your own race and age and income bracket, your own relatives (or extended relatives, for some), or friends, spouses, girlfriends, boyfriends, classmates, work buddies.

    And even 42 percent of the “Nones” are more or less okay with torture in at least some cases, according to the WP survey. 42 percent.

    So think it over. Wanna preach to any of those categories? Wanna see if they tell you “Amen” or not?

  • Larry

    “All this on a Washington Post/ABC poll. What about the other Polls? How were the questions asked? Where these active church members? Where is Pew Research on this issue? ”

    Please bring us links to those polls which support your notions. Lend some support against Mr. Silk’s argument. Show us that Christians are and were willing to speak up on a mass level against this sort of thing. I would love you to show that Christians have some real sense of morality on this subject.

    Too often the NALT (Not All Like That) argument comes in a defensive position. After some kind of public embarrassment. It makes such people look weak, ineffectual and unwilling to stand by their alleged principles except when forced to.

    As a favor please show him up with something. Bring back some faith in humanity here. 🙂

  • Doc Anthony

    So, Max, here is today’s question for you.

    42 percent of the “NONES” — people similar to yourself — are more or less okay with the use of torture in at least some cases. 58 percent of “Nones” say “rarely” or “never”, but that still leaves a very hefty **42 percent** of even the Nones who join the rest of a very wide spectrum of America.

    (And by the way, the words “rarely” and “never” are NOT synonyms. Looks like the “Nones” are trying to do some “Fudge Factor” on this poll to hide their support level !!)

    But that all leads back to my question for you, Max. 42 percent (or MORE) of the “Nones” are also on the side of Torture. Since you’re one of them, how do you account for THEM also supporting the use of torture? Is there anything you’d like to say to THEM today on this topic?

  • Stone

    Yes, I am talking about some of our own friends. I freely admit I’ve had serious differences on this very matter with many friends I thought I knew better. It has not been an easy time. I have not minced words. When I say that torture hits me in the same way as slavery, I mean it.

    I don’t care how many years you’ve known some friend. If that friend suddenly told you that slavery is O.K., you’d be disgusted, and you know it. Many here would voice that same disgust directly to that friend as well. Well, I’ve voiced a disgust with personal friends who have rationalized torture. I’ve felt sick to my stomach, and I’ve told them that as well.

    This hasn’t come from some holier-than-thou feeling. I’m as flawed as anyone I know. It’s come out because I’ve felt like throwing up, period. When you feel like throwing up, you vent. So, I’ve vented. So sue me.

    Now, you also seem to imply(?) that I’m ignoring the fact that 42 percent of the Nones support torture, as if I want to sweep under the rug the mote in “my side”‘s (?) eye? Not sure if I’m reading you correctly in this takeaway. But that’s what I think you’re implying?

    Fact is, I don’t view either Nones or traditional Christians as “my side”. I start with a layman’s interest in history. I’m neither a professional historian nor some sort of genius (wish sometimes I were……..), but a rather intensive study of historical social/cultural reformers on my own has yielded an overall picture of the most direct accounts of encounters with the divine — whether delusional or not — involving a heightened sense of oneness with all one’s neighbors.

    That is the chief reason why I sometimes view institutionalized religions as directly antithetical to the divine, sometimes more so than being a None. Institutionalized religions encourage “other”-ing of one’s neighbor. Nones are at least too well educated — usually — to fall for that “other”-ing crap. But, since the oneness idea has always been introduced, for eons, by counter-cultural figures who seem to have experienced the divine directly, I still subscribe to the existence of the divine, even though I view most religions as useless or worse in accessing divinity’s essence.

    I’m very alert to the irony that the divine appears to inspire empathy in those who experience the divine the most directly, while I am bereft of any empathy whatsoever for those who rationalize torture, even when they’re my closest friends. So evidently, my relationship with the divine is tenuous too. I’m not proud of being so impatient. Unfortunately, though, it involves gut feelings on my part that are uncontrollable, as uncontrollable as the disgust one feels when seeing someone retching out in the street.

  • The Gatekeeper

    Max isn’t here. There is only Zool

  • @Doc,

    Torture is always unacceptable. I am against it. I don’t know why anyone (religious or otherwise) would use torture since it has been shown to be ineffective and counterproductive.

    If the Nones come to the conclusion that Torture is acceptable, this article does not show their reasoning. Religious people, however, do have precedent for seeing torture as a means to an end.

  • Chaplain Martin

    My questions were addressed to Mark Silk for a particular reason. I want him to do more research before he quotes a single poll. Also more research on how the questions are asked. Mark wrote the column, I expect him to include more than one poll and to do more in finding out how the poll is conducted. He also gave it the headline. Why should I do his research?

    I don’t doubt that far too many, who at least claim they are Christians on a poll simply mean they are not of some other religion. I wonder what they know of Jesus of Nazareth teachings.

    It sort of reminds me, when I was a clinical chaplain of a prison and I received religious information on each inmate or convict. By “Any religious preference?”____, most wrote “Baptist” or actually most wrote Babtist or “Badtist”. So it seemed that the vast majority of inmates were Baptist in that prison. The inmate aide suggested we redo the form to make it a check list spelling out the names of denominations and Islam and leave a space for “other”. As is turned out the Baptist in the prison population declined a great deal. Yes, now days I would have been sure to have a place at the top of the list for a check mark for atheist.

  • Chaplain Martin

    Brother Max
    Don’t include Baptist in that torture stuff, well actually some do have a history of harassing their pastors to the point of torture.

    Max, my brother in this world and a fellow humanist (how be it I am a Christian social gospel humanist) I want to bless you with the highest blessing I can give from the bottom of my heart.

    May the blessings of God be upon you during this season of good will. May you and I do our part to make the new year better for others.

  • @bro Chaplain Martin,

    Wishing you a wonderful season of love, good cheer, friends, family and reflection.

    Please remember the Atheists.
    They are faking it in churches everywhere because they are scared to tell the truth and come out. And they need support, not prayers.

    Let them know it is perfectly okay to be Atheist.

  • Fran

    A Christian who is against torture of any type here. It matters not what color I am since we are all part of human family, and we were all created in God’s image or able to show the same qualities of God such as love and justice.

    In addition, God does not torture wicked mankind in a place of torment forever. He is a God of love and justice. Death is a “sleeping” experience where there is no thought or activity (Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10).

  • Chaplain,
    The results of the WaPo/ABC poll are consistent with what Pew found for white Christians back in 2008 (http://www.people-press.org/files/legacy-pdf/312.pdf) — except for the Nones, whose opposition to torture has markedly increased. The closest match in terms of questions asked is a Pew survey from 2009, which used the identical scale as WaPo/ABC. Here again, white evangelicals were most pro-torture, Nones, least. The salient shifts occur among white Catholics and mainliners, in the pro-torture direction.

  • Charlemagne

    I dunno, I think it comes down to your view of what is good. I think by the very fact this discussion exists, the western society is better than others. Res Ipsa loquitur. We have free speech, we are better, we should be allowed to defend it …yes…by any means necessary.
    Torture in defense of an open society is good. I believe torture should be used to defend open societies. Anyone who objects to torture in the ostensive cause of morality, tangentially aids in the destruction of that open society. You have to weigh the good and the bad. Moral preening could result in the destruction of that open society.
    If the final goals of a mature open society are good? What acts may be committed in its name? Count me in for torture in the name of an open society. The West occupies Mount Moral Highground(it used to be called Mount Olympus). No matter what the objection to Western societies from other cultures, you can pretty safely say that the West, by virtue of this ongoing discussion, is nowadays, at least a relatively open society where relative free speech is at least a lip service value. Other societies are not. In most other societies speech is constricted, the internet is censored.

    Basically the idea is…. if you are sure of the ‘good’ is on your side, anything goes. “I know the good, therefore in pursuit of my aim, by any means necessary”
    Including aiding the only open culture to disappear by not allowing it to defend itself?
    Charlemagne was sure he knew what was good.
    To further the advent of a Christian society was it worth beheading 4500 Saxons in 782 at Verden (180,000 in today’s population) to promote the Christian religion and force the Saxons to convert? Not to mention the ethnic cleansing of a third of the Saxon families to Christian territories(France) so Charlemagne could continue his moral cause. He was so sure he was right and committed mass murder in that cause. Charles the butcher got hbis way.

    A little torture in the name of a rare open society seems like a pittance, relatively speaking.

  • Earold D. Gunter

    I’m not a psychiatrist, but maybe christians are more inclined to agree with the use of torture because they see it as a sacrifice of one for the good of many. This narrative plays out in their jesus story, and they have become comfortable with it.

  • Chaplain Martin

    Talk about my neighbors? I now live in Auburn, Alabama. I would say a huge majority of those over 29 think any day now that Obama is going to take their guns, forget the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. My response is how do these polls really tell us anything useful. It seems the change in the thinking of Americans since 9/11 is mainly born out of exaggerated fear. In my opinion as I have viewed Christians in my ministry for the last 50 years, their actually knowledge of scripture is little, interpretation of the meaning they know even less. It get worse very year now that Sunday Schools and Bible study in church is on the vast decline.

  • m patrick

    Not true. Two words: Pope Francis. (And ok, Catholic Moral Theology….all of it)

  • Larry

    There is no such thing as “torture in defense of an open society”. Its like saying you are declaring, “martial law for freedom”.

    Torture by its nature is an act done in secret, outside of the eyes of public scrutiny and accountability, and done to deliberately debase, harm and undermine one’s general humanity. Having good intentions and good goals does not make an act moral and good. “The road to hell is paved with ….”

    “The ends justify the means” is not a moral concept. It is an excuse to avoid moral thinking in a given situation. Calling an atrocious act a pittance in comparison to prior ones does not make it any less atrocious. Slobodon Milosovic’s genocidal acts were far less than Pol Pot or Hitler. But his acts were still repugnant nonetheless.

    Torture may have practical and expedient ends, but don’t ever pretend it is something which has to be considered “good” or “right”. A necessary evil is still an evil.

    What I find the most repugnant is not the act of torture itself, but the legalistic and moralistic excuses made for it. The right thing to do would be to prosecute everyone involved after the fact or some kind of post-facto sanction. Not say, “Torture is peachy keen and right” This is more corrosive to a free society than any act of terrorism can do. You are attacking the very principles of an open society and human liberties in such excuse making.

  • Larry


    Not everyone is ideologically dogmatic and partisan as yourself. Some people have varied opinions.

    So where do you fall on the subject?

  • Jack

    If we capture a known terrorist responsible for 9/11-style mass murder, who knows when and wheree the next horrific attack is coming, but won’t talk, I see zero problem with pressing him to talk. I would rather save innocent human lives by getting him to talk and be called names by a bunch of pious, self-righteous hypocites than be given a pat on the head by these same people for letting the innocent die for the sake of moral vanity.

  • Jack

    You’re denying what both Democrats and Republicans running the intel community in the past have strongly affirmed — that enhanced interrogation saved innocent lives. To put such interrogation on the same moral level as the mass slaughter of innocent people is beyond surreal. It is the triumph of moral vanity and preening over moral responsibility. It’s people caring more about feeling good about themselves than actually doing good by saving other people’s lives.

  • Jack

    The Charlemagne analogy doesn’t work, because (1) the Saxons were beheaded and thus died (2) forced conversion to Christianity was not only wrong in itself but not efficacious because coerced faith is a contradiction in terms and thus (3) the act itself — the beheadings — was a bad thing that yielded no good thing.

    Contrast this with the post-9/11 enhanced interrogations, where the pressure put on the terrorists was temporary, lasting less than half a minute at a time, did not result in their deaths, did not result in any permanent physical damage of any kind, and saved innocent human lives.

    Less than half a minute of pressure on some of the most evil individuals on the planet is worth it if the result is many innocent lives saved.

  • Jack

    Today’s left should read Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Nature and Destiny of Man. It was written by a man of the left at least 80 years ago and it’s as relevant now as it was then. One of his points is that the preening pretension to absolute moral purity, especially in politics, paralyzes the ability of democracies to defend themselves successfully against their worst enemies.

  • Jack

    The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness is another good Niebuhr classic, as well as Moral Man and Immoral Society…..

  • So far as I know, Niebuhr didn’t discuss torture. But the late Jean Eshstain — who can be considered a conservative Nieburhian — did, and her position was that torture should not be legalized, that while it might be justified in rare cases, that judgment should be rendered as “a guilty person seeking forgiveness.” My guess is that Niebuhr would have agreed with that assessment. In the context of the present discussion, it accords with the “rarely” position I’ve identified with the anti-torture position, as opposed to the “sometimes” or “often” pro-torture position. See the discussion in Derek Jeffreys, Spirituality and the Ethics of Torture: https://books.google.com/books?id=hgnHAAAAQBAJ&pg=PA104&lpg=PA104&dq=Niebuhr+torture+Elshtain&source=bl&ots=rkoy3eT4ne&sig=Am7tZJNta4zKDdBvqtMZwaU0U1s&hl=en&sa=X&ei=-3yVVP7GCciYgwTb34PgDQ&ved=0CCsQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=Niebuhr%20torture%20Elshtain&f=false.

  • Stone

    And you are point-blank pretending that the latest conclusions in the Feinstein report don’t even exist, that the conclusion [paraphrase] “that the intelligence ‘gained’ from the torture sessions turned out useless” can just be photo-shopped out of history, swept under the rug. Stalinist white-outing anyone?

    Do us a favor: Go have fun whiting-out history on your own time, please.

    Thank you,


  • Jack

    Oh please….that report was a partisan hack job that wasn’t worth the paper it was written on. It consisted of strings of accusations without any substantive attempts to find actual answers by fully interviewing relevant people. Its declaration that no lives were saved was just that — a mere declaration alone. I can declare I’m Julius Caesar or that the moon is made of tapioca pudding but that doesn’t make it so.

  • Jack

    You’re probably right that Niebuhr never discussed the matter at hand per se, but one of Niebuhr’s biggest peeves was the tendency of well-meaning liberals to tie their own hands against tyranny by insisting on unrealistic stands of moral purity when it came to dealing with tyrants. He strongly believed that the moral responsibility to stand up to the evils of modern totalitarianism inevitably meant abandoning perfectionistic arguments, which he felt would lead to paralysis instead of action.

  • Jack – then I assume your claim that the Feinstein report was based on pure logic, with no religious or political bias involved? Perhaps you’re a progressive who simply proceeds on a basis of pure reason, and not a white evangelical?