A poll analysis released last week by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life confirmed what Iraq-war critics suspected: White conservative evangelicals, and persons who attend church weekly, were more likely than the general U.S. population to violate New Testament ethics forbidding violence and torture.

While the effectiveness and reliability of torture against terror suspects to prevent mass casualties is hotly debated, conservative evangelicals appear to have the fewest reservations about torture regardless of individual circumstances:

Nearly 20 percent of white evangelicals and white Catholics favor torture “often,” with little regard for the severity of the alleged past offense, the reliability of the allegations, or the proximity of a given suspect to any plans for future attacks.

Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, former president of the Chicago Theological Seminary, finds this deviation from New Testament values — by those who claim to be most devout — worthy of concern. Writing in The Washington Post, Thistlethwaite comments:

One possible way to interpret this extraordinary Pew data is cultural. White evangelical Protestants tend to be culturally conservative and they make up a large percentage of the so-called Republican “base”. Does the approval of torture by this group demonstrate their continuing support for the previous administration? That may be.

But I think it is possible, even likely, that this finding has a theological root. The UN Convention Against Torture defines torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person…” White Evangelical theology bases its view of Christian salvation on the severe pain and suffering undergone by Jesus in his flogging and crucifixion by the Romans. This is called the “penal theory of the atonement”–that is, the way Jesus paid for our sins is by this extreme torture inflicted on him.

For Christian conservatives, severe pain and suffering are central to their theology. This is very clear in the 2002 Mel Gibson movie, The Passion of the Christ. Evangelical Christians flocked to this movie, promoted it and still show it in their churches, despite the fact that it is R-rated for the extraordinary amount of violence in the film. It is, in fact, the highest grossing R-rated movie in the history of film. The flogging of Jesus by the Romans goes on for fully 40 minutes. It is truly the most violent film I have ever seen.

The message of the movie, and a message of a lot of conservative Christian theology, is that severe pain and suffering are not foreign to Christian faith, but central.

Of course, this is an interpretation of Jesus life, death and resurrection that I reject. It is also an interpretation that I believe has done a lot of harm through the centuries.

The writer is being charitable: Conservative evangelicals’ broad acceptance of pre-emptive torture is heresy. It constitutes an assault upon morality and human dignity. And as Exodus International has relegated itself to a far-right fringe of the evangelical movement, it has become a participant in terror and torture.

Since board member Don Schmierer co-keynoted an antigay, pro-terror conference in Uganda in March, Exodus International has applauded Schmierer’s action and has refused to officially condemn any portion of the conference and ensuing antigay terror campaign.

In unofficial personal statements, Exodus President Alan Chambers and spokesman Randy Thomas have:

  • defended a supposed right of Ugandan churches to wage vigilante terror and violence against gay Ugandans;
  • denied responsibility for their role in knowingly encouraging Schmierer to participate in the March conference, after they were warned by pro-equality and human-rights advocates;
  • resorted to elliptical statements of what they don’t believe, rather than what they do believe, regarding the specifics of their role in Ugandan human rights violations and more generally regarding criminalization, imprisonment, and forced ex-gay therapy for homosexuals

Until Exodus punishes its rogue leaders and officially condemns human rights atrocities, imprisonment, forced “therapy,” Exodus must be regarded as a hate group — one that seeks to intimidate, injure and kill gay people even as it destroys Christian families and churches with poisonous misinformation about parenting, sexual orientation, and true faith.