U.S. Religious Leaders Press Obama on Torture Probe

U.S. religious leaders, including those of some mainline church bodies, are pressing President Obama to commit to the creation of an independent Commission of Inquiry to investigate U.S. government-sponsored torture since 9/11.

According to the leaders, who presented senior officials from the Obama administration Thursday with a letter to the president, such a commission is necessary to uncover "the whole truth" about U.S. torture policies and practices; mobilize a national consensus; and build support for the requisite safeguards to ensure that U.S.-sponsored torture never happens again.

"We know that you share with us the understanding that torture is wrong – without exception, that it is illegal and immoral. You have stated this unequivocally," the leaders stated in their letter to Obama.

The leaders recalled how the president signed an executive order banning torture on the second full day in the White House.

"With that order, you signaled to our nation, as well as to the world, your determination to return the United States to the rule of law and to begin the process of restoring our nation's moral stature in the global community. We are profoundly grateful for your swift and decisive action in signing this executive order," they stated.

However, the leaders said an executive order is not enough and can be superseded by laws and national emergencies.

"Our nation can guarantee the abolition of torture only if and when we put in place safeguards to prevent once and for all the future twisting and abrogation of the existing laws that prohibit torture," they continued before making their case for the Commission of Inquiry.

According to the group, an independent Commission of Inquiry would be more credible and thorough than the current existing institutions, which Obama has deemed adequate in sniffing out errors in U.S. torture policies and practices. Such a commission, they say, is the "only avenue" to guarantee a future where torture will never happen again, as it would comprise of citizens who are well-respected, non-partisan, and independent-minded.

"As people of faith we know that only the truth can set us free," the leaders stated. "We must therefore, as a nation, be mature and honest enough to examine fully and disclose completely the wrong doing that has been committed."

Accountability, they added, is essential in a nation of laws.

Notably, however, while the religious leaders made it clear to Obama where they stand on the issue of torture, their stance is not shared by many of their followers.

In a recent Associated Press-GfK poll, for example, only 47 percent of self-proclaimed Christians said the use of torture can rarely (18 percent) or never be justified (29 percent).

Meanwhile, another recent poll by the Pew Forum found that those who attend religious services were more like to believe that torture against suspected terrorists was "often" or "sometimes" justified than those whose who seldom or never attend religious services.

Furthermore, the more often a person attended religious services, the more likely they were to believe that torture can "sometimes" be justified and less likely to believe that torture can "rarely" be justified.

"These findings weigh heavily on us, as religious leaders," signers of the recent letter to Obama stated. "We have more work to do to educate our people. We accept our responsibility to bear bold and compelling witness to the sanctity of the divine image in all people and to the fact that torture in every instance defiles and desecrates this divine image."

In closing, the leaders beseeched Obama to commit to the creation of a Commission of Inquiry that will "uncover the truth, identify and establish legal safeguards, and guarantee for our children and grand-children a future in this country free of torture, without exceptions."

"We pray for you 'the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of God," they concluded, citing Isaiah 11:2. "And we look to you to lead our nation back to the path of truth and justice."

Signers of the letter included, among others, the Rev. Dr. John H. Thomas, general minister and president of the United Church of Christ; the Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon, general secretary of the National Council of Churches; Bishop Gregory Vaughn Palmer, president of the United Methodist Church's Council of Bishops; the Rev. Dr. David P. Gushee, president of Evangelicals for Human Rights; the Most Rev. Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church; and the Rev. Gradye Parsons, stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church, USA's General Assembly.

Non-Christian faith leaders included, among others, Rabbi Steve Gutow, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs; Dr. Ingrid Mattson, president of the Islamic Society of North America; and Manmohan Singh, secretary general of the World Sikh Council's America region.

The letter was presented following a meeting Thursday between 33 senior religious leaders and senior Obama administration officials.