Poll Shows Golden Rule Moves Southern Evangelicals Away From Torture

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 on Sept. 11.
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 on Sept. 11.


Results from a recent 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 poll, released on Sept. 11 at the National Summit on Torture on Mercer’s Atlanta campus, was commissioned by Faith in Public Life and Mercer and was conducted by Public Religion Research Inc. based on polling of 600 white evangelical Christians in the South.

Among the findings of the poll: close to six-in-10 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-20 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, fewer 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 Dr. 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.”

To read more about the poll, click here.

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