Volume 30, Issue 1, Spring/Summer 2010
David P. Gushee
What the Torture Debate Reveals about American Evangelical Christianity
THE DISCOVERY OF DETAINEE ABUSE AT ABU GHRAIB IN 2004 FOLLOWED by the gradual disclosure or release of government documents signaling that decisive policy shifts by the U.S. government led directly to such abuses contributed to a dispiriting national debate about the morality of torture—a debate that continues today. An ongoing fracture between competing social-political-ethical visions in the evangelical world has been revealed and further exacerbated by this debate over torture. Politically conservative evangelicals restrict their policy engagement to issues such as abortion and gay marriage and either steer clear of the torture issue or actually defend torture and attack antitorture efforts; centrist and progressive evangelicals favor a broader agenda that has included opposition to torture. Employing analytical categories derived from a study of Christian behavior in Nazi Europe as well as from personal experiences, this essay recounts and analyzes the torture debate as it occurred in the American evangelical community. The analysis yields the conclusion that white American evangelicalism has displayed structural theological-ethical weaknesses that make this community profoundly susceptible to state (or at least Republican) abuses of power. In response to this integrity-testing moment in evangelical life, this essay calls for a renewed evangelical commitment to a Christ-centered vision of the dignity and rights of every human being.