Torture, Fear, Gut, Grace

April 30, 2009

There are many things to say about this new poll that shows, once again, widespread support for torture among church-going Evangelicals. More than anything else, this strikes me as a political issue decided along expressly political lines. Nonetheless, I think there’s a case to be made that we should view this as a genuine expression of some elements of the Evangelical outlook, albeit one molded by the last 50 years.

Its a tired but also true cliche that Evangelicalism is a religion of the heart, not the head. But just as much its one of the heart, its also one of the gut, of the instinct that draws one away from life-destroying behavior, the unquestionable feeling that ones old life and the outside world must be rejected, and the impulse that lies at the basis of all faith but is articulated most fully in evangelical non-theology.  There is a definite tendency in the evangelical imagination to conflate the gut with grace in this outlook, and the immediate implication is that fear becomes one of the central emotions by which evangelicals come to understand grace. In this outlook we are saved not just from hell, but from secularity and from ourselves: we need not be afraid, though the things to fear are legion.

What’s lost in this, as many many commentators have observed, is any religious response not grounded in fear, the most obvious casualties of this being generosity and guilt. To the extent that these are articulated in evangelical faith, they are always tied back to the fear of damnation, death, and the disgusting.  Those who wander from this fold (this means you Joel Osteen!) almost immediately begin to hemorrhage the hardened core that underpins the evangelical outlook, and they begin resembling their prime source of their converts, the now-shrinking mainline.

Evangelical support for torture can be read constructively through this lens. Because the core political concerns of the Christian right have been those where grace and fear can intertwine productively, it makes sense that torture should fail to stir the sort of rage that abortion does. A fetus cannot hurt you. A terrorist can. A fetus is innocent, if not without sin. A terrorist is neither innocent nor sinless. We can go down list, but the end story is clear: if grace is to be understood through the negative lens of reaction, then it cannot extend to one’s enemy insofar as he is a thing to be saved from.

The real quesiton, and one that many people are now asking, is not just what we are saved from, but what we are saved for. And that question stands at the core of why Christians must oppose torture.

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