Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Torture, Religion, Partisanship, and Human Rights

I'm probably lagging on this discussion, but I've gone from disappointment in my fellow religious, to mild confusion, and back to disappointment.

Pew's survey shows that people who are more religious are also more inclined to believe that the use of torture is justified more often than not. Those who attend services weekly make up almost half of their sample and bring up the national average significantly. In addition, comparing their survey of the nation as a whole with Gallup's survey could suggest that the public is fairly informed on the issue. Pew used the word "torture" while Gallup used the term "harsh interrogation techniques" and came up with similar numbers (49-47 Pew, 51-42 Gallup - so the use of words may have a small effect).

In theory, the religious, at least among Christianity, should have a strong sense of human rights issues. Ideally, the average religious Christian should oppose the death penalty, abortion, embryonic stem cell research, gay marriage, euthanasia, and theoretically also oppose the use of torture on others (of course, this is a broad generalization).

Gauging the partisan breakdown of the religions the conclusion I came to is that partisan identification matters more than religion identification. But just how important is party as compared to religion? Or just party in general? Shouldn't religion be the more dominant and common factor in a person's daily life?

Edit: I cited the wrong part of the Gallup poll. There's a large overall difference in support for torture: 49-47 Pew, 55-35 Gallup, an 18 point difference. The partisan split is interesting though. Democrats: 36-60 Pew, 39-54 Gallup. Indies: 54-42 Pew, 55-34 Gallup. GOP: 64-35 Pew, 80-15 Gallup.


  1. The issue is not so cut and dry to think that we can just ban all torture.

    In cases where an attack is imminent or when a sizeable plot could be uncovered, do you not see a use for well supervised torture? (and notice, I grant you the term torture, even though the methods the U.S. used were significantly below torture standards of many a Middle Eastern country)

    Perhaps the question from the polling companies invited the same type of black and white generalization you used in your post.

  2. If I wasn't clear in my comment . . . what I meant was that participants in the poll could have supported torture, but perhaps only in the limited sense I proposed.

  3. @Grozet: what about Robert Gibbs' assertion that this kind of ticking bomb Jack Bauer situation is a myth?

  4. Both surveys were very clear in the question that the techniques - either "harsh interrogation" or "torture" were used against terrorist. Gallup's survey said that it was either "justified" or "unjustified". Pew asked if it was "often," "sometimes," "rarely," or "never" justified.

  5. Indeed, the ticking bomb scenario is problematic for a variety of reasons. There was actually a brief - but quite interesting - discussion about all of this back in 2003; Wolf Blitzer interviewed Harvard's Alan Dershowitz (who was pushing his idea of "torture warrants") and Ken Roth, of Human Rights Watch.

    On the ticking bomb question, Roth says:

    "Yes, that's the ticking-bomb scenario, which everybody loves to put forward as an excuse for torture. Israel tried that. Under the guise of just looking at the narrow exception of where the ticking-bomb is there and you could save the poor schoolchildren whose bus was about to be exploded some place. They ended up torturing on the theory that -- well, it may not be the terrorist, but it's somebody who knows the terrorist or it's somebody who might have information leading to the terrorist.

    They ended up torturing say 90 percent of the Palestinian security detainees they had until finally the Israeli supreme court had to say this kind of rare exception isn't working. It's an exception that's destroying the rule. We have to understand the United States sets a model for the rest of the world. And if the United States is going to authorize torture in any sense, you can imagine that there are many more unsavory regimes out there that are just dying for the chance to say, "'Well, the U.S. is doing it, we're going to start doing it as well.'"

    Like Roth, I tend to see this as generally black and white. There are undoubtedly times when we might feel like it's desperately important to torture someone and where it might be very difficult not to torture. But just because something's difficult doesn't mean we ought to compromise our values. Roth captures my feelings rather well:

    "Torture is not needed. If you start opening the door, making a little exception here, a little exception there, you've basically sent the signal that the ends justify the means, and that's exactly what Osama bin Laden thinks. He has some vision of a just society. His ends justify the means of attacking the World Trade Center. If we're going to violate an equally basic prohibition on torture, we are reaffirming that false logic of terrorism. We are going to end up losing the war ..."

    You can find the complete discussion here: http://edition.cnn.com/2003/LAW/03/03/cnna.Dershowitz/

  6. Well, the ticking-bomb scenario does present a good case for why an individual would believe that using torture on terrorists to extract information is justified. It however does not explain why a group is more inclined to hold that same inclination.

  7. that's true and there you've hit upon the crux of the matter. ultimately the question begged by these polls is why: why do republicans and the religious find justification for torture easier to come by? why is it that those who purport to hold the moral high ground fail to see this governed on the same terms as other moral issues?

  8. ephialtes -

    I knew the partisan hackery couldn't be long ignored. The Democrats socially liberal policies seem to impair freedom more so than the socially conservative policies of Republicans. Check out this study from George Mason University showing America’s most liberal states rank the least free. http://mercatus.org.twi.bz/a. Right back at you . . .

    AK - you bring up a good point that should be considered by Congress when devising what kind of torture and its scope should be allowed, if any. I still believe that a well constructed law with proper oversight from Congress would fit the needs of our intelligence community.

  9. ephialtes--

    Well, no. My question is: do the religious support torture because they are more likely to be republicans? And if that is so, is party identification more dominant than religious identification in shaping political opinion, or even moral opinion?

  10. A quick reminder, before I post a response - a bit later - to the central question about religion that Justin raised in his original post:

    Let's do our best to respond to one another as charitably as possible. Since the bloggers on this site and the users of the Tweet Academy Twitter feed fall all over the political spectrum, we'll need to work our hardest to ensure that no one feels (s)he cannot speak whatever (s)he holds to be right. Just try to remember, whenever you post or comment, that we're striving for open and honest dialogue through this social networking experiment.

  11. violaxcore: That's an excellent question to raise concerning party ID vs. religious affiliation in the support of torture. The polling the media have utilized shows no causal direction, is based in no theory, and as such should be taken with a bag of salt.

    If a study is released tomorrow showing that 90 percent of Republicans both support laissez faire economics AND enjoy vanilla ice cream, does this mean that a love of vanilla ice cream informs one's belief in the free market?

    I don't know the exact figures, but the majority of evangelicals are Republican. Republicans are more likely to support torture. What we don't know is whether the religious affiliation is a coincidence, or whether it actually plays into one's support of torture.

    Unfortunately, my knowledge of the interplay between religious beliefs and policy preferences is weak; it would be interesting to see if there really is covariation between the two in the case of these policies.

    I do wonder if many Americans are able to separate religious beliefs from political beliefs more than we think. This would perhaps explain the inconsistency present when a person's religion supports human rights while their party does not. Recall how during Clinton's impeachment a large majority of Americans disapproved of his morals and personal activities while remaining supportive of his official actions as president.

  12. I wonder what it would mean to say, as Mike does, that Americans might be "able to separate religious beliefs from political beliefs." Of course, the first thing that comes to mind is that famous Nietzschean assertion that "God is dead and we have killed him."

    I don't think this is a Republican/Democrat issue. Lots of people from both parties speak about their religious beliefs only when they line up with their political beliefs or engage in all sorts of mental gymnastics to find ways to get the two to line up (think about gay marriage or the death penalty for easy examples).

    But if people are ultimately putting political affiliation ahead of religious belief, I'd go so far as to say that they're not really religious. Now this isn't a bad thing as far as Nietzsche is concerned, but it means that continuing to make claims based on religious belief has to ring pretty hollow. After all, if human rights are central to my religious teaching, but my political party justifies occasional rights violations, don't I need to find another party?

  13. Something I didn't really point out in my first post was that perhaps we are seeing the effects of a political culture which is both religious and able to separate religion and politics at the same time (though this is obviously changing in certain segments of the population). Could it have anything to do with the Constitution's separation of church/state?

    I think this is probably unlikely, but still interesting to ponder. It seems that given the murkiness of the church/state rule has been used by various groups over time to their own benefit. For example, many Americans are fine with keeping the two entities separate, at least until somebody wants to remove the Ten Commandments from a courthouse or install some non-majoritarian religious icon in a public space.

    On an unrelated note, I wouldn't necessarily say that people are willing to put political affiliation ahead of religious affiliation, or vice versa. Given most of America's lack of consistent (or existent) political preferences and knowledge, they may not have an idea that their religion and party beliefs are so divergent. Something to think about..