The National Religious Campaign Against Torture -- Sightings

Call it the Jack Bauer syndrome, but large numbers of Americans, especially since 9-11, have concluded that torture is okay.  Indeed, large numbers of American Christians have concluded that this is true, even Roman Catholics, whose own social teachings rule it out.  Indeed, not only are there religious conventions against it, there is the UN Convention Against Torture, to which the US is a signatory, that also rules against such "techniques" as water boarding.  In today's Sightings, Sidney Callahan focuses on this issue in light of the work of The National Religious Campaign Against Torture.  I invite you to read and respond to this informative essay, considering how a person of faith can assent to such acts (while also acknowledging that historically we have not only assented but participated).

Sightings  6/30/2011 
 The National Religious Campaign Against Torture
-- Sidney Callahan

For many Christians a banner reading “Torture Is A Moral Issue” does not begin to describe torture's inherent evil. Nevertheless when our affluent Roman Catholic parish erected a “Torture Is Wrong” banner on the church lawn, some parishioners complained. This display was considered objectionable because it was “political.”

Polls have shown that more Republican Catholics approve of torture than Catholic Democrats. Fifty percent of Americans think that torture is justified against suspected terrorists “often” and “sometimes,” according to a May 2011 poll by Roper Public Affairs. These results compare with Pew Research Center findings that almost half of Americans, polled since 2004, think torture is justified in order to gain important intelligence information. Half of American Catholics in the Pew data approve of torture, with higher rates of acceptance correlated with frequency of church attendance. 
In response, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture was founded in 2006. Their mission is to eradicate use of torture and change attitudes towards it. Enrolled members consist of a broad-based group of religious communities who join in educational programs, petitions and protests. In June an awareness campaign included the display of banners reading “Torture Is Wrong,” and “Torture Is A Moral Issue” outside churches. Other distributed materials and programs seek to provide accurate information to members.

The campaign seeks to inform church members that under the UN Convention Against Torture, signed by the United States, torture is always illegal and forbidden, despite exceptions made under the Bush administration. The UN defines as torture the use of  waterboarding and other cruel Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (EITs). Ironically those who used waterboarding were prosecuted by the US government because waterboarding was considered a war crime when employed by the Japanese in WWII, yet it has admittedly been used by CIA interrogators. Comparable torture techniques used against captured American prisoners in the Vietnam War were also seen to be equally illegal and immoral.

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church state that the prohibition against torture is “a principle that cannot be contravened under any circumstance.” This prohibition follows the scriptural teaching of St. Paul who in Romans 3:8 proclaimed that doing evil to achieve good is forbidden. During the Inquisition the Church itself tortured and burned victims’ bodies “for the good of their souls,” a practice now recognized as a sinful violation to be repented. The fact that torture was legal in all European law codes until the reforms of the eighteenth century was no excuse, only compounding the failures of Christendom.

Now NRCAT petitions are directed at Obama and his administration concerning torture in US prisons, and the abuse of solitary confinement. Most crucially, the campaign seeks to publicize the upcoming Senate Intelligence Committee Investigation of CIA interrogation practices. The use of prolonged indefinite detention without trial is also being protested as an abusive practice.

Catholics explicitly affirm that each human is created in the image of God and is an equal member of God’s family. Even more to the point are the words of Jesus Christ when he proclaimed that whatever you do to the least of these human bodies you do to me.  The National Religious Campaign Against Torture calls its member congregations to fulfill their core commitment to compassion by recognizing the primacy of the moral prohibition against torture.    

Marjorie Cohn, “Torture Is Never Legal And Didn’t Lead Us To Bin Laden,”, May 13, 2011.

Vincent Iacopino, Scott A. Allen and Allen S. Keller, “Bad Science Used to Support Torture and Human Experimentation,” Science volume 331,  January 7, 2011.

Kenneth R. Himes, "Divided On Torture: How To Build A Public Consensus For The Moral Treatment of Detainees," America, April 18, 2011. 

Sidney Callahan is a Distinguished Scholar at The Hastings Center.  


Editor's Note: Sightings will be on hiatus for the month of July and will return in August.  

Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


Brian said…
It frightens me how easily the American people can be convinced to approve of torture. Based on history, it is not surprising, but it is still frightening.

A religion based on a person who was tortured to death by the most powerful nation in the world should be the leading voice against torture. Oh yeah, that nation would not have been there to torture him to death had they not been occupying countries in the Middle-East.

Matthew 25:31+
I wanted to be sure you had seen NRCAT's recent release on this very issue. Please let me know if you have any questions.

For Immediate Release: July 1, 2011
Contact: Samantha Friedman, office: (202) 265-300 or cell: (202) 215-9260 or

Religious Coalition Says Commission of Inquiry into Torture is Even More Necessary

WASHINGTON, D.C. – In response to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s announcement yesterday on ending the preliminary investigation into the CIA’s use of torture on detainees, Rev. Richard Killmer, Executive Director of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, released the following statement:

“The National Religious Campaign Against Torture is pleased that the Department of Justice has agreed to investigate the torture deaths of two detainees. However, our country has a long way to go before we come to terms with the dark, dark deeds that some U.S. officials committed on detainees in the aftermath of 9-11. We know CIA interrogators subjected detainees to waterboarding, extremes of heat and cold, sleep deprivation, long-term isolation, sensory deprivation and stress positions, among other abuses. To all appearances, the CIA then chose to conceal the evidence of these crimes by destroying the videotapes documenting them.

“For the past three years, Assistant Attorney General John Durham has investigated these crimes. Yesterday, Attorney General Holder announced a full criminal investigation into the deaths of two – but only two – of the dozens of detainees who were subject to torture.

“Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who is also former CIA Director, was quoted as welcoming the news of the end to the broader inquiry, saying ‘We are now finally about to close this chapter of our agency’s history.’ Mr. Panetta should be far from glad that the broader investigation is over; a great country does not – must not – sweep its mistakes under the rug. We have a moral obligation to fully investigate our government’s past use of torture.

“The U.S. government should establish a Commission of Inquiry to investigate U.S.-sponsored torture and to recommend safeguards to end U.S.-sponsored torture forever. Only by fully understanding the mistakes that were made can we ensure that we do not make them again.”

lindapeac said…
Thank you for your support of this important issue. people have been desensitised to the horror of it. So many people have been shown to be innocent. Even if the victim is guilty it is illegal and performed without fair trial.

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