A Southern Baptist ethicist accused the National Association of Evangelicals of using tortured logic in a recent statement denouncing cruelty toward detainees in the U.S.-led war on terror.
Daniel Heimbach, professor of Christian ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, last week in Baptist Press termed an NAE-endorsed anti-torture statement “a moral travesty managing not only to confuse but to harm genuine evangelical witness in the culture.”
Heimbach, who has supported the use of torture in certain cases in an online dialogue, faulted the 18-page NAE statement for moralizing against torture without specifying particular acts to which it objects.
The danger of the NAE’s “diatribe,” Heimbach said, is “that it threatens to undermine Christian moral witness in contemporary culture by dividing evangelicals into renouncers and justifiers of nebulous torture–when no one disagrees with rejecting immorality or defends mistreating fellow human beings made in the image of God.”
Heimbach has long argued against an outright ban on torture, saying the United States should instead base interrogation of prisoners on “just war” principles guiding use of force in military conflict.
“Heimbach misuses the rules of just war to support a pro-torture position,” said Robert Parham, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics. “Just war rules are intended to restrain the rush to war and violence. Just war rules are misused when they become a pretext for moral cover that allows death and denigration. Given the nature of this guerrilla war, the principle of non-combatant immunity by itself is enough to rule out torture as a morally acceptable step.”
“He and other Southern Baptist fundamentalists are again isolating themselves from the larger evangelical community for high-partisan reasons,” Parham continued. “They are so hardwired to violence that they have abandoned the core Christian conviction that all human beings are made in God’s image and deserve human rights.”
“Torture is morally wrong,” said Parham. “Southern Baptists are becoming the pro-torture denomination.”
Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, agreed with Heimbach there “could exist circumstances” where uses of coercion are necessary.
The two Southern Baptist theologians part with much of the Christian community, which denounced mistreatment of prisoners at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.
Speaking to the Baptist World Alliance last summer, former President Jimmy Carter called treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba a national “disgrace.”
Last year a coalition of religious leaders including Baptist ethicist Glenn Stassen and mega-church pastor Rick Warren signed an article criticizing the Pentagon for violating Geneva Convention rules banning “human and degrading treatment” in new detainee policies.
In 2005 religious leaders, along with legal and human rights organizations, urged President Bush to condemn acts of torture.
Religious leaders in 2004 questioned Bush’s choice of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who as White House chief counsel formulated many of the administration’s policies regarding treatment of detainees in the war on terror.
EthicsDaily.com has carried several opinion articles opposing the use of torture, including a January 2006 editorial by Baptist Center for Ethics head Robert Parham criticizing President Bush for flouting a law he signed prohibiting torture by saying he could waive the law in extreme circumstances.
“Neither law breaking nor torture is morally the right thing to do,” Parham wrote. “Two wrongs never equal a right. Obeying the law and treating prisoners with dignity is the right path to follow, the best way forward in a sinful world.”
The NAE board of directors recently renounced the “use of torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment by any branch of our government (or any other government)–even in the current circumstance of a war between the United States and various radical terrorist groups.”
“We make these renunciations and calls for action as Christians and as U.S. citizens,” the leaders said. “Undoubtedly there are occasions where the demands of Christian discipleship and American citizenship conflict. This is not one of them. Returning to the absolute commitment to human rights outlined here is right in terms of Christian convictions and right in terms of the interests of our nation. We commend these moral commitments to our fellow believers, and our fellow citizens, for such a time as this.”
Heimbach told Baptist Press the statement substituted “passion for reason,” causing readers to “be either morally confused or moved to join a crusade unrelated to facts.”
Instead of pontificating against torture, he said, the drafters would have better served the public by defining at what point coercion crosses from moral to immoral.
Instead of supporting a blanket ban, Heimbach said, evangelicals should rely on principles of “just war” tradition when drawing a moral line regarding torture.
Those principles, he said, include using no more force than is morally warranted, only using force for proper reasons and no more, only using force when other means are ineffective, only using force when properly authorized, never relying on inherently evil methods, only using force on those involved in violence against us, only using force in ways likely to obtain justified results, only using force with regret, never using force in ways that break promises, and never using force in ways that go beyond the value of the wrong being corrected.
In an essay last year, Mohler said he could not rule out cases where the use of torture might be necessary and for that reason opposed an outright ban.
“We live in a fallen world threatened by agents of terror who are changing the reality of war and would end civilization as we know it, killing noncombatants without conscience as a matter of pride,” Mohler wrote. “In confronting this new form of evil, we are now forced to rethink many of the most settled questions of morality and the use of force. Nevertheless, we have no choice but to fight this foe and to wage war on those who would use mass murder and terror to sever the fragile bonds of human society. Yet, in fighting this war it is inevitable that we will look down and find dirty hands, even in doing what we would all agree is a lamentable necessity. What we must not do is compound the problem of dirty hands by adopting dirty rules.”
Mohler said “under certain circumstances” that “most morally sensitive persons would surely allow interrogators to yell at prisoners and to use psychological intimidation, sleep deprivation, and the removal of creature comforts for purposes of obtaining vital information.”
“In increasingly serious cases, most would likely allow some use of pharmaceuticals and more intensive and manipulative psychological techniques,” he said. “In the most extreme of conceivable cases, most would also allow the use of far more serious mechanisms of coercion–even what we would all agree should be labeled as torture.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
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Bob Allen was the managing editor at EthicsDaily.com from 2003-2009, writing more than 1,500 news stories during his tenure. He is currently the news editor at Baptist News Global.