Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.


James Skillen


May 11, 2007
When the directors of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) sign a declaration against torture, one can be sure that worries about the Bush administration’s conduct of foreign and military affairs are deepening. Why? Because the NAE is a generally conservative coalition that represents many who have strongly supported President Bush. After years of mounting evidence of Guantanamo Bay prisoner mistreatment and well-known abuses at Abu Ghraib that have not been satisfactorily answered by the White House and the Pentagon, many Evangelicals now feel compelled to speak out. 

"An Evangelical Declaration Against Torture: Protecting Human Rights in an Age of Terror," signed by NAE in early March, preceded the release this month of a U.S. military report that uncovered some distressing facts about battlefield ethics (Boston Globe, 5/5/07). In a survey conducted by the Army, 39 percent of Marines and 36 percent of soldiers expressed approval of torture to gather important information. Forty-four percent of Marines and 41 percent of soldiers would allow torture to save the life of one of their comrades. Two-thirds of the Marines and half of the Army troops surveyed also said "they would not report a team member for mistreating a civilian or for destroying civilian property unnecessarily." According to the report, "Less than half of soldiers and Marines believed that noncombatants should be treated with dignity and respect."

The evangelical declaration against torture (drafted by Evangelicals for Human Rights— was prompted by objections to current U.S. policy. "Tragically", it says, "documented cases of torture and inhumane and cruel behavior have occurred at various sites in the war on terror, and current law opens procedural loopholes for more to continue." It commends the Army for revising its field manual to say explicitly that military personnel may not beat prisoners, humiliate them sexually, threaten them with dogs, deprive them of food and water, perform mock executions, shock them with electricity, burn them, or use waterboarding. However, the declaration reproaches the Bush administration for allowing American intelligence agencies to employ such questionable interrogation techniques. The declaration against torture also objects to recent legislation that permits CIA officials to remain free of congressional oversight.

The Evangelical Declaration Against Torture is strong on Christian support for human rights and in citing relevant international legal standards such as the Geneva Convention Against Torture and the UN Convention Against Torture—documents that the United States signed and helped to write.

What the document does not do is to answer the questions of those who say that the unusual methods and aims of terrorist groups justify new approaches on America's part to obtain information from suspected terrorists. The document urges Evangelicals to reaffirm support for human rights, but it doesn't explain how and why so many soldiers and Marines (and so many Evangelicals themselves) have come to accept the use of questionable interrogation methods that can be recognized as torture.

The deeper problem is the triumph of utilitarian pragmatism over the principle that government bears responsibility to uphold justice even in war. If protecting America above all is the highest moral purpose, then many unjust means can be employed to serve that "higher" end. Pragmatic calculations displace just-war reasoning, and before long even those who believe strongly in human rights can conclude that the rights of Americans, particularly of comrades in military service, rank higher than the rights of those who are, or may be, threatening us.

The NAE is to be commended for signing the new declaration against torture. Now it is time for churches, colleges, and seminaries to teach the broader meaning of just governance, which is the necessary foundation of human rights protection.

—James W. Skillen, President
    Center for Public Justice

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”