I was not going to wade into the debate over torture presently going on at the “On Faith” column at the Washington Post, especially since there is so much dishonesty in the way this issue is argued. The definition of torture is assumed, and the practice then condemned without ever spelling out what one means by it. I heard recently that an al-Qaeda prisoner (who happened to be afraid of bugs) was recently subjected to having a caterpillar put in his cell as a way to get him to talk. I’m sorry, but I don’t think the Geneva Convention was written with that kind of silly stuff in mind.

Anyway, I was going to pass this by, but then my friend Hampton pointed me to the column by the ever-egregious Susan Thistlethwaite that is simply begging for a response. Thistlethwaite, who has never met an issue that wasn’t an excuse to slander Christian conservatives, doesn’t fail to meet expectations:

The more often you go to church, the more you approve of torture. This is a troubling finding of a new survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Shouldn’t it be the opposite? After all, who would Jesus torture? Since Jesus wouldn’t even let Peter use a sword and defend him from arrest, it would seem that those who follow Jesus would strenuously oppose the violence of torture. But, not so in America today.

Instead, more than half of people who attend worship at least once a week, or 54%, said that using torture on suspected terrorists was “often” or “sometimes” justified. White evangelical Protestants were the church-going group most likely to approve of torture. By contrast, those who are unaffiliated with a religious organization and didn’t attend worship were most opposed to torture — only 42% of those people approved of using torture.

I’m not sure whether Thistlethwaite’s problem is math, reading comprehension, or writing. But when I look at the same information she does, I get a different answer.

tortureThistlethwaite, for some strange reason, brackets out the “rarely justified” answer, presumably so she can make regular worshipers look bad. If you include the rarely column, what you get is that there is no statistically significant difference between those who attend worship regularly, periodically, and seldom or never (73%-74%-69%, with Pew indicating that the poll had a 4% margin of error). The differeces between the “often, ” sometimes,” and “rarely” categories are statistically significant, but that significance is undercut by the lack of a definition in the terms, which has to be filled in by the respondent. In addition, the word “torture” is also not defined in the question, meaning the respondent could hear the question as asking about anything from bamboo shoots under the fingernails and electric shock to the genitals to bright lights in the eyes and caterpillars in the cell. Given the way the public debate over the subject has gone, I would have to say that such an amorphous survey is of little use in actually understanding attitudes toward torture. (I should also mention the question while I’m at it: “Do you think the use of torture against suspected terrorists in order to gain important information can often be   justified, sometimes be justified, rarely be justified, or never be justified?”)

Misreading a survey is one thing. Thistlethwaite takes this a lot further, however:

But I think it is possible, even likely, that this finding has a theological root. The UN Convention Against Torture defines torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person…” White Evangelical theology bases its view of Christian salvation on the severe pain and suffering undergone by Jesus in his flogging and crucifixion by the Romans. This is called the “penal theory of the atonement”–that is, the way Jesus paid for our sins is by this extreme torture inflicted on him.

For Christian conservatives, severe pain and suffering are central to their theology. This is very clear in the 2002 Mel Gibson movie, The Passion of the Christ. Evangelical Christians flocked to this movie, promoted it and still show it in their churches, despite the fact that it is R-rated for the extraordinary amount of violence in the film. It is, in fact, the highest grossing R-rated movie in the history of film. The flogging of Jesus by the Romans goes on for fully 40 minutes. It is truly the most violent film I have ever seen.

The message of the movie, and a message of a lot of conservative Christian theology, is that severe pain and suffering are not foreign to Christian faith, but central.

See where this is going? Evangelicals (apparently not Catholics or mainline Protestants who still take the confessions of their churches seriously, however) believe in the substitutionary atonement, which was achieved by Christ’s suffering and death on the cross. Evangelicals, thus, must approve of torture when it was inflicted on Christ. Therefore, evangelicals approve of waterboarding Khalil Sheik Mohammad. Maybe that’s the kind of leap in logic that Thistlethwaite makes in her own life, but most evangelicals are unlikely to see the connection.

Thistlethwaite seems to be under the impression that evangelicals went to The Passion of the Christ and cheered on the Romans. In fact, every reaction I’ve ever heard from a Christian of whatever persuasion was one of intense shock, grief, and guilt for the fact that Christ underwent that in our place, that such was what we deserved, but that out of an almost incomprehensible depth of love He took our place. The fact that Gibson’s rendering of the flogging of Jesus is not gratuitous, but historically accurate, just deepens the reaction to it. Given that Thistlethwaite has repeatedly demonstrated in her “On Faith” columns that she doesn’t actually know any evangelicals, and has no comprehension whatsoever of how we think, it isn’t really surprising that she doesn’t get this.