If you want a classic example of political Christianism – and its active hostility to spiritual Christianity – it’s hard to beat Sarah Palin’s remarks yesterday. I offered a brief response last night, but this obscenity needs to be unpacked some more. And the first thing to say is that a former US vice-presidential candidate did not just endorse a war crime; she endorsed it as routine for every human being suspected of terrorism. And she seems to endorse it as an introduction to captivity. “Waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists” is a glib statement but a revealing one. Baptism is the beginning of something, an introduction. And so torturing prisoners accused of terrorism is a signature of the America Palin believes in. It’s how we welcome them to our prison camps.
Now look how far we have come from the original notion – pioneered by Charles Krauthammer and popularized by “24” – that torture should only be used in the hypothetical ticking time-bomb case. That argument – only ever hypothetical – nonetheless assumes that torture is evil and should only be used in extremis to prevent imminent catastrophe. Palin, in contrast, like her party, has long since blown past such niceties. She believes that torture should be the first resort – a sign of how America treats its foes, a badge of honor.
What can one say but that this is a bona fide fascistic sentiment. It revels in violence against individuals tied down by their hands and feet and strapped to a terrifying board in order to be suffocated hundreds of times to near-death. It is the kind of statement you might expect from the Khmer Rouge, or from the Chinese Communists who perfected “stress positions”, or from the Nazis, whose Gestapo pioneered “enhanced interrogation”, i.e. brutal torture that would leave no physical traces. Except it’s worse than that. Even totalitarian regimes have publicly denied their torture. Their reticence and lies are some small concession of vice to the appearance of virtue. Not Palin – who wants to celebrate brutal torture as the American way.
And then she manages to go one step further. She invokes torture in the context of a Christian sacrament. Not since the Nazis’ Deutsche Christen have we seen something so disgusting and blasphemous in the morphing of Christianity into its polar opposite. Mercifully, some Christians on the right have managed to say something. Dreher rightly calls it sacrilege:
Not only is this woman, putatively a Christian, praising torture, but she is comparing it to a holy sacrament of the Christian faith. It’s disgusting — but even more disgusting, those NRA members, many of whom are no doubt Christians, cheered wildly for her … What does it say about the character of a person that they could make that joking comparison, and that so many people would cheer for it.
It says something quite clear to me.
It reveals that vast swathes of American Christianity are objectively anti-Christian, even pagan, in their support for this barbarism. Rod should know this by now. In the best recent polling on the question, 62 percent of white evangelical “Christians” back torture as often or sometimes justified, with only 16 percent holding the orthodox position that it is never justified. Now compare those numbers with Americans who are unaffiliated with any religion: the number in that demographic is 40 percent in favor in some or many cases, and 26 percent against it in all circumstances. Is this a function of wayward and uncommitted Christians? Nope. Support for torture is highest among those who attend church at least weekly and lowest for those who rarely or never go to church. In America, torture is a Christian value. And some people wonder why I prefer to term “Christianist” to describe these people.
Joe Carter gets it right:
The truly Christian position is to never forget that evil comes not just from the actions of “terrorists” or “enemies” but from the heart of a fallen, sacred yet degraded, human beings. If we are to preserve our own humanity we must not forget that our enemy differs from us in degree, not in kind. Like us, our enemies need to accept Jesus and to be baptized by water and the Spirit. That is the Christian way, not as Palin would have it, to have our enemies fear a pagan god and have their spirit broken by water.
It seems to me, moreover, that torture is a far graver evil, even for orthodox theologians, than non-procreative or non-marital sex. And yet today’s Christianists are obsessed about the latter and not just indifferent to the former, but actually in favor of it. It’s this twisted set of priorities, this exquisitely misplaced set of fears, and this utter ignorance of even basic Christian teaching that reveals all that’s so terribly wrong with American Christianity. It has become its own nemesis.
(Photo: T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images)