Who Would Jesus Torture? Evangelical Christian Profession Highly Correlates with Support for Torture

A new Pew poll correlates Evangelical Christian profession with support for the torture of “suspected terrorists.” That correlation is 79%. See the poll results here. And see here and here for dissection of the poll.

In other words, eight in ten professing Evangelicals somehow manage to call themselves followers of Jesus as well as at least occasional supporters of torture. And fully 62% think torture is not just something that can be “rarely” justified, but rather is it something that can “sometimes” or “often” be justified.


More than half.

How on earth can such a thing happen?

And it’s even worse than this, for there is no other major religious group in the United States that supports torture more than professing Evangelicals. Indeed, opposition to torture is actually highly correlated with non-religious enthusiasm and attendance. Put differently: atheists and agnostics have a clearer head on torture as a moral evil than Evangelicals, and the less that you attend church, the more likely it is that you oppose torture.

26% of the religiously non-affiliated told Pew pollsters flat out that torture can never be justified. Period. But only 16% of Evangelicals could muster the same response.

I’m doing my best to get my head around this. How can someone who enthusiastically professes to follow an unjustly tortured outsider (Jesus) also support the torture of outsiders who have not even received a trial?

At least Jesus got one of those first.

In other words, how could one’s Christianity become so, well, perverse? I have a theory. Strong professions of religiosity—particularly of the Bible literalist and fundamentalist variety—correlates with psychological authoritarianism.

What’s your theory?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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4 Responses to Who Would Jesus Torture? Evangelical Christian Profession Highly Correlates with Support for Torture

  1. Jared K. says:

    On possible explanation is that this poll, if it is accurate, reflects the particular results of Bush era targeting and manipulation of evangelicals. That is, evangelicals found in Bush a seemingly authentic fellow believer they could get behind. After 9/11, and following Bush’s own warmongering tendencies, evangelicals disproportionately, and perhaps even subconsciously, absorbed this ideology and came to his defense because they, at least initially, liked him.

    I think the parallel to this would be in the success of the fusion movement among evangelicals. I don’t think that anything about evangelical beliefs ought to provide a particular predisposition toward radical free market capitalism. And yet so many evangelicals actually believe that God wants them to be a free-marketeer.

    I think both of these largely result from the political targeting of evangelicals.

    I guess if there is something about the evangelical subculture that lends itself to this type of manipulation I would say that it is educational ignorance–a product of early 20th century fundamentalism that led to Christians sticking their heads in the sand when it came to thinking critically and being intellectually engaged. This, for obvious reasons, makes you an easy target of manipulation.

    Of course, that isn’t to say that what was finally absorbed was not authoritarian. You may be right. I just don’t think that anything about core evangelical beliefs lends itself to authoritarianism.

  2. Jared K. says:

    No need to respond to this if you are busy, but I saw this in my email just this week:
    This is an ad run by the ACLU that essentially uses paranoid anti-authoritarian scare tactics in the same way that the NRA does to muster up financial support. Although I think the ACLU has done many good things, I thought this ad was ridiculous and even infuriating. (Why do I care if we shift to a national id card? It could prevent many of the abuses of having 50 different id standards.) I wondered if you would agree that it is possible to be too paranoid and obsessed with finding supposed authoritarian dangers under every rock?

  3. santitafarella says:


    I was rather busy yesterday, but meant to respond to your first post, so I’ll do that. I’ll look at the ACLU reference you’re directing me to, and respond to that soon.

    As to your first post, you said: “I just don’t think that anything about core evangelical beliefs lends itself to authoritarianism.”

    I agree with you. When I was a teenage evangelical I was not an authoritarian. I used to infuriate some of my co-religionist by being pro-choice! I used to say to them that it was a sin, but God gave people free will, and if we (as Christians) start forcing people’s will in the public square, we turn them off to the gospel. I thought it was perfectly coherent to follow your own faith without in any way forcing it on others legislatively.

    Obviously, most Evangelicals think differently. My question is why? And my answer is that authoritarians are attracted to authoritarians. In other words, if you preach the Bible in an authoritarian way, you can attract the 20% of the adult population that is psychologically authoritarian.

    Just as it is easy to use the Bible in a liberal way, it is easy to use it in a conservative way. It is a form of marketing. Obviously, the Bible easily lends itself to authoritarian interpretation for those who want to read it that way. God is a patriarch FATHER who demands obedience. He has rules that must be obeyed without question. He will torture you in hell if you don’t think the right things and do the right things. This is the kind of talk that perks up the ears of a large segment of the population, and if you talk this way you can attract some of them.

    Evangelicalism, in my view, doesn’t market properly to liberals. It has damaged its brand by becoming coercive in the public square (so that it is associated with Red State Fox News blusterers and intolerance).

    Obviously, Evangelicals could emphasize all the liberal things in the Bible (helping the poor, equality and justice, Jesus as outsider etc.) and attract a smaller, more liberal congregation. In other words, it pays to talk more like James Dobson or John MacArthur or Mark Driscoll than it does to talk like YOU.

    Jared, I wish and hope that you are the future of Evangelicalism. And maybe you know a whole nest of others like yourself—a subculture of liberal Evangelicals who engage others with reason and nuance and don’t force people’s choices in the private square—even as you uphold your traditional doctrinal statements (Jesus’s resurrection etc.).

    But liberals have been so put off by authoritarian Evangelicalism it’s very difficult (in the United States) to imagine other kinds. When I was sixteen, and suggested to my youth pastor that prayer and moral and rational suasion, and that alone, should be our methods of influencing the broader society (as opposed with abortion legislation), I was met with dumbfounded confusion and silence.

    But I still think that legislative and politicized Evangelicalism, accompanied by wealth preaching, is a decadent Evangelicalism, and has done more to wreck the gospel before liberal non-believers than anything else. But it attracts authoritarian personalities, and now it has inextricably woven itself into the Republican Party so that Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity call themselves “Christian” and nobody blinks or whinces.

    Evangelicalism has turned into something kind of absurd—where you are frowned upon if you cuss, but not if you support torture.


  4. santitafarella says:


    I watched the ACLU video.

    It’s obviously a reductio ad absurdum—but so was the Holocaust. In other words, the logic of a bureaucratic machinery is to maximize efficiency to the n’th degree.

    I’m not saying that I endorse the ad, but reductio ad absurdums occur a lot in history and we all stand drop mouthed when we discover them after the fact. How could the Holocaust have happened? How on earth did America become a torture nation? How did an inefficient czarist prison system morph into Stalin’s gulags? How did the religion of the gentle and impoverished Jesus, meek and mild, morph into the Christianity that is in the United States today? How did the banking system become such a ponzy scheme and run to such absurd extremities of house size and price? Each of these ran on the machinery of a certain kind of “logic” to an absurd conclusion. A machine got started, responsibility got dispersed, and off it went.

    One more example: Isn’t driving, on a suburban or city street an unenvironmental all terrain military vehicle with as much square footage as a bedroom an absurd thing? What made this car just get bigger and bigger? A reductio ad absurdum is running. The peacock’s feathers is also a reductio ad absurdum! The human brain is a reductio ad absurdum—the biggest one of all!

    The ACLU is simply suggesting that if you don’t have privacy laws, what’s to prevent the linking up of your consumer behavior and your medical insurance policy? Or a pizza purchase with a pizza t-shirt since your records indicate that you regularly frequent the GAP, which happens to be selling a pizza t-shirt for 12.99?

    It’s a bit of a silly ad, and kind of funny, and if it is meant to frighten the paranoid, well, maybe ten percent of the ACLU’s budget comes from paranoid ad responders! The paranoid are people too, and they can be marketed to with tea parties or authoritarian religion. Why would the ACLU leave money on the table? Why can’t they market to the liberal paranoid (just as Fox News markets to the conservative paranoid)?

    America is about making money. Authoritarians are a market. The paranoid are a market. If you can identify a market and tap it, you’re going to see it manifest in the public square. The ACLU is not a singular entity. One segment of its constituency is the paranoid, but another segment is me and Barack Obama and Alan Dershowitz. It’s a tapistry. Fox News has Sean Hannity, but it also keeps a little bit of liberal curiousity going by hiring Geraldo Rivera and letting Shepherd Smith go off message with a “We don’t torture” exclamation.


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