Faith groups mount campaign against torture

They're protesting Bush administration policies. But polls show Americans are split on the issue.

As Congress and the Bush administration skirmish over still-secret interrogation techniques, American faith communities are mounting a national campaign to prohibit torture and cruel and inhumane treatment of US-held detainees.

More than 175 religious organizations have joined the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT). Their aim is to build a moral consensus among Americans on the issue and to bring government policies in line with US law and international norms.

"Religions of the world do agree on basic tenets about how people should treat each other because of the dignity of the human person," says the Rev. Richard Killmer, executive director. The group involves mainline and evangelical Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, and other members.

The campaign has its work cut out for it. Polls since 2001 show great divergence and ambivalence in public attitudes toward the interrogation and treatment of alleged terrorists. And Congress so far has not convinced the administration to change course.

NRCAT worked for congressional passage of the 2008 intelligence bill, which required the Central Intelligence Agency and other agencies to conform to the Army Field Manual in their interrogations. The manual, revised in 2006 after the abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, prohibits the use of waterboarding (simulated drowning), military dogs, beatings, and electric shocks, among other techniques.

President Bush vetoed the bill in March, and Congress was unable to override the veto. But the Senate intelligence committee voted last week to try again, this time in the 2009 intelligence spending bill.

Meanwhile, a Justice Department official revealed in a letter to Congress last week that secret rules for CIA interrogations may allow even more latitude to interrogators than was indicated in a presidential executive order last summer, stirring more outcries.

The campaign is calling on Americans to sign a statement of conscience that torture is a moral issue and that such practices should be abolished, without exceptions. Some 25,000 individuals have signed the statement so far.

"The belief in human dignity leads people to reject practices such as slavery, genocide, and rape. Are exceptions made for those practices?" Mr. Killmer asks. "I put torture in the same category."

Others involved say that authorizing any form of torture trusts government too much. Not only does such interrogation not produce reliable information, many say, but it also endangers the nation's character.

"Most people, even if they are uneasy about a policy, tend to go along with it out of inertia, or lack of information, or a sense of loyalty to their president or country," says David Gushee, who teaches Christian ethics at Mercer University in Atlanta. "But faith gives you a transcendent reference point where you can assess what your country is doing in the name of higher values. What's at stake is whether the US will return to its own best self."

Several denominations have stated policies against torture. And Evangelicals for Human Rights (EHR), a group formed by NRCAT, drew up a statement on torture approved in 2007 by the National Association of Evangelicals.

But not all people of faith agree with the idea of blanket elimination of "enhanced interrogation techniques." Some argue that rules may have to be suspended temporarily under extreme circumstances. Others have begun suggesting that elements of "just war" theory can justify certain techniques, according to Jean Bethke Elshtain, professor of social and political ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School. As in the case where a military target is hit legitimately although civilians nearby might be harmed, the idea is that the intention is not to harm the person but to ultimately save lives.

"That 'double effect' idea hasn't yet been vetted by the community of just-war thinkers," Dr. Elshtain says. "I'm sure many will find it a very strained argument and others may see some merit."

Debate continues over the techniques themselves, such as waterboarding. In a CNN poll last fall, 69 percent of Americans called it torture. Asked whether the government should be allowed to use it, 58 percent said no, and 40 percent said yes.

The Pew Research Center reported a year ago that when asked if torture can be justified to gain key information, 29 percent of Americans said "never," 25 percent said "rarely," 31 percent chose "sometimes," and 12 percent "often."

Those in the campaign believe that on this issue, leadership can make all the difference. "If Americans can be shown there is a path that protects the nation without using torture, most people will choose that, because they are uneasy about torture," says Dr. Gushee, who is president of EHR.

They are hoping that any of the three presidential candidates will be willing to provide that leadership, and they're encouraging members to question the candidates publicly. Gushee posed a question on torture policy during the Compassion Forum on CNN in April and, in response, Sen. Barack Obama unequivocally rejected torture and rendition of prisoners to other countries known to use torture.

During June, which is Torture Awareness Month, NRCAT is sponsoring "Banners Across America." Congregations of various faiths in all 50 states are asked to display a banner outside their place of worship that would say either "Torture Is Wrong" or "Torture Is a Moral Issue." Rabbis for Human Rights is making available a third banner: "Honor the Image of God: Stop Torture Now."

On Sept. 11 and 12 in Atlanta, EHR and NRCAT will host a National Summit on Torture.

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