Evangelical Torture Statement Draws Conservative Fire

Correction appended

A Southern Baptist leader has criticized the statement on torture recently adopted by the National Association of Evangelicals as confusing and failing to define boundaries for the practice.

"The main problems I have with the NAE declaration is not moral but rational," wrote Daniel R. Heimbach, professor of Christian ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (SEBTS), 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."

Last weekend, the NAE board of directors endorsed a document on human rights and torture entitled, An Evangelical Declaration Against Torture: Protecting Human Rights in An Age of Terror. The statement was produced by the Evangelicals for Human Rights and affirms that Christianity views human life as sacred.

The document also stated that sanctity of life is a "non-negotiable" moral tenet for evangelical Christians that affects every part of its members' life including public policy decisions. It concluded that it supports detainee human rights and opposes resorting to any 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," explained Rich Cizik to The Associated Press. Cizik is vice president of governmental affairs for NAE and one of the 17 drafters of the torture document.

"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 NAE says it represents 45,000 evangelical churches and some 30 million members. The Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest protestant denomination, however, is not a member of the NAE.

SEBTS's Heimbach has opposed the torture document for not clearly defining when coercion crosses over to become torture.
"The danger of the NAE's diatribe," the Baptist professor pointed out, "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."

"[A]nd evangelicals should not support any position that fails to balance rejecting immorality with defining boundaries revealing exactly where right turns to wrong," he added.

Other conservatives have also criticized the torture statement for not providing a clear definition of what constitutes torture.

"Even accepting all of NAE's worst case assumptions, it could have at least acknowledged the legitimate moral tensions between defending the innocent from mass murder and imprisoning some of the most unsavory of the guilty," wrote Mark Tooley, who directs the United Methodist Committee of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in a recent opinion piece.

"More to the point, just as NAE is not directly responsible for the sexcapades or dubious theologies of some NAE leaders and members, neither is all misconduct by U.S. forces directly a reflection of U.S. policies."

Meanwhile, some are troubled that the article only focuses on U.S. torture and could be seen as a political document criticizing the United States or the Bush administration.

Jerald Walz, vice president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy and a NAE board member, noted that the drafters of the document and largely from the evangelical left.

"They need to include countries that are actively torturing," Walze said to Christianity Today magazine. "There's no moral equivalence between the United States and a regime like North Korea," he said. "To remain silent on that is a travesty."

In response, Professor Carl H. Esbeck, one of the document's drafter, said that he U.S. government has to "get our own house ready" before it will be heard by other countries on the torture issue.

The NAE endorsed the torture statement last weekend at its biannual board meeting in Minnesota where it also reaffirmed that creation care is an important moral issue and responsibility for evangelicals, countering criticism by some Christian leaders that climate change advocacy by NAE's Cizik was distracting away from more important issue like abortion and homosexuality.

Correction: Saturday, March 17, 2007

An article on Saturday, Mar. 17, 2007, about responses to an anti-torture statement endorsed by the National Association of Evangelicals incorrectly reported that the Southern Baptist Convention is opposed to the document. While a Christian ethics professor at a Southern Baptist seminary has criticized the statement, the SBC did not immediately release any official statements denouncing the torture document.

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