Silence on torture troubling

At long last, a prominent Christian conservative has called waterboarding what it is: torture. Last week, Richard Land, an official with the Southern Baptist Convention, said the practice is unethical and "violates everything we stand for."

"There are some things you should never do to another human being, no matter how horrific the things they have done. If you do so, you demean yourself to their level," said Land, president of the SBC's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

His comments, though belated, are welcome. He breaks a telling silence about torture among the most politically active leaders of the religious right, who had a tendency to endorse all decisions and embrace all practices of former President Bush. Indeed, Land had nothing to say about waterboarding when Bush was still in office, though many reports confirmed the administration's use of the practice years ago.

Land's comments follow a poll showing that evangelical Protestants are less ambivalent about torture than their fellow citizens. The Pew Center for Research found that, among all Americans, about half believe torture can often or sometimes be justified. Pew says 62 percent of "white evangelical Protestants" believe so. (Pew's sample was too small to identify groups other than "white evangelical Protestants," "white non-Hispanic Catholics," and "white mainline Protestants.")

It makes you wonder, doesn't it? Conservative Christians tend to be conspicuously pious, loudly proclaiming themselves moral, righteous, just. Yet, their support for torture — even against an avowed enemy, even in times of peril — seems oddly out of step with the radical gospel of a carpenter who preached peace, forgiveness and mercy: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

Many evangelical Christians, black, white and brown, are Biblical literalists, insisting that homosexuality is a sin and evolution is heresy because the Bible says so. That same Bible introduces a simple teacher who instructed his followers to turn the other cheek, to repay cruelty with kindness, to disregard their personal safety. Yes, we may be forgiven for being afraid, but fear cannot justify inhumanity to others. How does that jibe with support for barbaric treatment of detainees?

The religious right certainly isn't responsible for the decisions of the Bush administration, which raised torture to official policy. Nor were conservative Christians alone in their failure to speak out — loud and long — against it. Even as reports leaked out about simulated drownings, chaining prisoners to the ceiling and slamming them against walls, there were few voices raised in protest. Much of America stood by quietly as our ideals were trampled, international law violated and our moral standing eroded.

But conservative Christians were a favored constituency when Bush was in power. Their enthusiasm powered his campaigns; their votes helped usher him in; their leaders helped push through his agenda, including his unfortunate war of choice in Iraq. If Land had found his voice on torture then — and persuaded his conservative colleagues to join him — perhaps Bush would have seen the error of his ways.

At the very least, Land and his fellow theologians might have been able to curb the enthusiasm for torture among their own parishioners. Perhaps they could have added to their condemnations of homosexuality and abortion a reminder or two about the words of the Galilean they purport to follow. "Love your enemies," he said. It's not a torture-friendly gospel.