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Ethicist: NAE torture declaration ‘irrational’

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–An anti-torture statement endorsed by the National Association of Evangelicals “is a moral travesty managing not only to confuse but to harm genuine evangelical witness in the culture,” a Southern Baptist ethics professor said March 15.

“The main problem I have with the NAE declaration is not moral but rational,” Daniel R. Heimbach, professor of Christian ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote in a statement to Baptist Press. “While it loudly renounces ‘torture,’ it nowhere — in 18 pages of posturing — defines what signers of the document claim so vehemently to reject.”

The NAE, which claims to represent 45,000 evangelical churches but does not include the Southern Baptist Convention, said in the statement approved March 11 that the United States has crossed the “boundaries of what is legally and morally permissible” in the war on terror.

“Our military and intelligence forces have worked diligently to prevent further attacks. But such efforts must not include measures that violate our own core values,” the document, called “An Evangelical Declaration Against Torture: Protecting Human Rights in an Age of Terror,” says.

“The danger of the NAE’s diatribe,” Heimbach noted, “is that it threatens to undermine Christian moral witness in contemporary culture by dividing evangelicals into renouncers and justifiers of nebulous torture — when no one disagrees with rejecting immorality or defends mistreating fellow human beings made in the image of God.”

Substituting passion for reason, the document causes readers to be either morally confused or moved to join a crusade unrelated to facts, Heimbach said. Instead of pontificating against torture, he said, the drafters would have served the public well to define at what point coercion crosses from moral to immoral.

Evangelicals should rely on long-accepted principles of the just war tradition when attempting to draw a moral line regarding torture, Heimbach said. Those principles include: using no more force than is morally warranted, only using force for proper reasons and no more, only using force when other means are ineffective, only using force when properly authorized, never relying on inherently evil methods, only using force on those involved in violence against us, only using force in ways likely to obtain justified results, only using force with regret, never using force in ways that break promises, and never using force in ways that go beyond the value of the wrong being corrected, Heimbach said.

David Gushee, professor of moral philosophy at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., was the principal drafter of the statement, which was produced by the NAE-affiliated Evangelicals for Human Rights. The group of 17 drafters also included Rich Cizik, vice president of governmental affairs for the NAE; Brian McLaren, founder of Cedar Ridge Community Church in Maryland; and David Neff, editor of Christianity Today.

Cizik told the Associated Press the statement was not a critique of the Bush administration but was meant to let the world know that evangelicals do not support torture.

“There is a perception out there in the Middle East that we’re willing to accept any action in order to fight this war against terrorism,” Cizik told AP. “We are the conservatives — let there be no mistake on that — who wholeheartedly support the war against terror, but that does not mean by any means necessary.”

The federal government has a moral obligation to follow international human rights treaties that the United States has endorsed, the statement says.

“As American Christians, we are above all motivated by a desire that our nation’s actions would be consistent with foundational Christian moral norms,” the document says. “We believe that a scrupulous commitment to human rights, among which is the right not to be tortured, is one of these Christian moral convictions.”

Meanwhile, a dialogue on torture is ongoing among leading theologians at evangelicaloutpost.com/torture. The website features responses from Heimbach and R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Mohler, on the website, calls torture “a vital issue of great moral consequence” and says “all citizens bear responsibility to be informed and engaged” concerning the debate.

“I would argue that we cannot condone torture by codifying a list of exceptional situations in which techniques of torture might be legitimately used,” Mohler wrote. “At the same time, I would also argue that we cannot deny that there could exist circumstances in which such uses of torture might be made necessary.”

Heimbach told Baptist Press that evangelicals should support government application of coercive force to non-cooperating prisoners as long as those methods are limited to just war boundaries.

“Evangelicals should also firmly oppose, criticize and renounce the coercive treatment of prisoners in ways that transgress just war boundaries,” Heimbach said. “The NAE declaration on torture is confused and dangerous for failing to identify and apply relevant moral principles, and evangelicals should not support any position that fails to balance rejecting immorality with defining boundaries revealing exactly where right turns to wrong.”
“An Evangelical Declaration Against Torture” can be viewed at evangelicalsforhumanrights.org.

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  • Erin Roach