Poll: White Evangelicals' Attitudes on Torture Influenced by Faith, Golden Rule

September 11, 2008

Media Contact:
Katie Paris
Faith in Public Life
(202) 243-8289

Mark Vanderhoek
Mercer University
(478) 301-4037 


Left to Right: David Gushee, Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics, Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, director of the Two Futures Project, Robert P. Jones, president of Public Religion Research, and Katie Paris, director of communications strategy for Faith in Public Life, answer questions from the media during a press conference today.
Left to Right: David Gushee, Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics, Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, director of the Two Futures Project, Robert P. Jones, president of Public Religion Research, and Katie Paris, director of communications strategy for Faith in Public Life, answer questions from the media during a press conference today.
 

To view a video of the press conference, click here.
To download the press release, with graphics, click here.

ATLANTA — The results of a new poll of Southern white evangelicals’ views on torture show that while evangelicals are more likely to hold a more extreme view than the general public, the results also show that when reminded of the teachings of Jesus, in particular the Golden Rule, their views can be changed. The new poll, released today at the National Summit on Torture at Mercer University’s Atlanta campus, was commissioned by Faith in Public Life and Mercer University and conducted by Public Religion Research base on polling from white evangelical Christians in the South.

Among the findings of the poll: close to six-in-ten white evangelicals in the South say that torture can be often (20 percent) or sometimes (37 percent) justified in order to gain important information. This compares to roughly half (48 percent) of the general public who believe that torture can be justified, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll (February 2008).

Despite high levels of religiosity, white evangelicals in the South are significantly more likely to rely on life experiences and common sense (44 percent) than Christian teachings or beliefs (28 percent) when thinking about the acceptability of torture. And only about one-in-twenty white evangelicals rely on the advice of government leaders when it comes to torture. These different sources of moral thinking lead to strikingly different attitudes.

Among those influenced by Christian teachings, a majority (52 percent) oppose torture—14 points higher than white evangelicals in the South overall. In contrast, among those who rely most on life experiences and common sense, less than one-in-three (31 percent) oppose torture.

A majority (52 percent) agree with the Golden Rule argument against torture—that the U.S. government should not use methods against our enemies that we would not want used on American soldiers. This movement represents a 14-point increase from the 38 percent of white evangelicals who initially said that torture is rarely or never justified. Appeals to three other moral and theological frames did not significantly influence views on torture.

An appeal to the Golden Rule increases opposition to torture among every subgroup of white evangelicals. For example, only about one-third (34 percent) of white evangelicals who attend worship services more than once a week say torture is never or rarely justified, but a majority (50 percent) of this group was persuaded by the Golden Rule argument against torture. This represents a 16-point shift in opinion among the most frequent attending white evangelicals in the South.

This finding was a part of the good news that the Rev. Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, director of the Two Futures Project and a Baptist minister, highlighted in his response to the poll results.

“The good news is this poll reminds us that in torture, as with any issue, when Christians remember that our calling is to follow Jesus, he changes everything,” Wigg-Stevenson said. “Consider that when torture was put in the context of the golden rule, absolute opposition that is it is never justifiable – shoots from an initial 22 percent to 52 percent a 30-point jump. One way of reading this statistic is that the golden rule itself bolsters opposition to torture, and this is probably true. A far more profound conclusion, however, is that by framing the question around the golden rule, we’re helping a lot of evangelicals who initially came at the issue using non-Christian principles to make their decisions based on Christian teaching and belief.”

The findings prompted David Gushee, conference organizer and Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer, to challenge presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain to make a stand against torture a central tenet of their campaigns. He also invoked the teachings of the Golden Rule as a central belief of Christianity and all other major religions.

“Use the golden rule position to lead on torture – it is religiously, morally, and politically compelling, and people respond to it,” Gushee said. “Say it: we must never do to people of another country what we would not want done to our troops.”

Other Findings

A majority (53 percent) of white evangelicals in the South believe that the government uses torture as part of the campaign against terrorism, despite repeated claims made by government officials that the U.S. does not engage in torture. Only about one third (32 percent) say that the U.S. does not use torture as a matter of policy.

Among white evangelicals in the South who are registered voters, 65 percent support Republican John McCain, 14 percent support Democrat Barack Obama, and 21 percent remain undecided. These findings are consistent with the recent Time Magazine poll (Aug. 4) that showed 66 percent supporting McCain, 17 percent supporting Obama, and 17 percent undecided among white evangelicals nationwide.

Two thirds of John McCain’s supporters say torture can often or sometimes be justified, compared to only 46 percent of Obama supporters and undecided voters.

About the Survey
This survey was commissioned by Mercer University and Faith in Public Life and conducted by Public Religion Research. Results for this survey were based on telephone interviews conducted under the direction of Opinion Access Corporation among a sample of 600 white evangelical Christian adults, age 18 years or older in the southeastern United States. This region includes the following states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia. The survey was fielded from August 14-22, 2008.
The margin of error for the total sample is /- 4.5 percent at the 95 percent confidence interval. In addition to sampling error surveys may also be subject to error or bias due to question wording, context and order effects. The data was weighted using demographic weighting parameters derived from the Religious Landscape Survey. Conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life from May 8 – August 13, 2007, the Religious Landscape Survey is a national survey of 35,000 adults with detailed information on religious affiliation and identity.

About Faith in Public Life:

Faith in Public Life is a communications and organizing resource center dedicated to helping faith leaders reclaim the values debate in America for justice, compassion, and the common good. Faith in Public Life is a nonpartisan 501(c) (3) organization. For more information, visit www.faithinpubliclife.org.

About Mercer University:
Founded in 1833, Mercer University is a dynamic and comprehensive center of undergraduate, graduate and professional education. The University has more than 7,500 students; 11 schools and colleges – liberal arts, law, pharmacy, medicine, business, engineering, education, theology, music, nursing and continuing and professional studies; major campuses in Macon, Atlanta and Savannah; three regional academic centers across the state; a university press; two teaching hospitals — Memorial University Medical Center and the Medical Center of Central Georgia; educational partnerships with Warner Robins Air Logistics Center in Warner Robins and Piedmont Healthcare in Atlanta; an engineering research center in Warner Robins; a performing arts center in Macon; and a NCAA Division I athletic program. For more information, visit www.mercer.edu.
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