What is Evangelicals for Human Rights? What is Our Agenda?

The “Evangelical Declaration Against Torture” has attracted intense scrutiny and responses both positive and negative in the week since it was approved overwhelmingly by the board of the National Association of Evangelicals. Mention has been made of a mysterious organization named Evangelicals for Human Rights that drafted this declaration. It is time to tell the story behind the story, and to respond to the initial waves of questions our statement and organization have evoked.

Where did this statement come from?

This declaration is the result of over six months of work by the distinguished drafting committee listed on the website. Our specific purpose was to raise evangelical awareness of torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of detainees. Our broader purpose was to deepen an evangelical commitment to human rights. We knew we wanted to write a joint statement and release it to the public; we had no idea at the time whether any other evangelical organization would support this statement.

What was your motivation for writing this statement?

To bear Christian witness. That was our motivation. We wrote the document because we are Christians who want to follow Christ, and citizens who care about our country.

In the end what we developed was a pretty sizable teaching document. The best parallel might be a Catholic encyclical. The flow of the document is important. We move from the sanctity of life (a core evangelical commitment) to human rights, being careful to demonstrate that a commitment to human rights has roots deep in Christian history. Then we turn to the ethical implications of this concept of human rights, and that becomes the entry point for an analysis of torture and a statement of recommendations.

The original title of the statement was “Human Rights in an Age of Terror.” It was and is mainly an effort to cement and deepen evangelical commitment to human rights.

It never was intended as a political statement. It was intended as a theological-ethical statement with public policy implications.

We are very happy to see that scores of visitors to our website are downloading the document and say that they are planning to use it as a study tool in their local churches and in educational settings. That’s exactly why we wrote it. It is not a perfect document; it is not omniscient. We have already revised it a bit, and may well revise it further in the future as we find ways to sharpen it.

But it is worthy of study. At least, that is our hope.

Isn’t this just another “religious left” slam on the Bush Administration?

Actually, despite the criticisms of some, that is exactly not what the statement is intended to be. First of all, it is simply inaccurate to say that any evangelical Christian who disagrees with any particular Bush Administration policy (or in this case, a federal law approved by members of both parties) is a denizen of the religious left. Any fair-minded review of the names of our drafters would have to say that we represent voices from the evangelical center-right, center, and center-left.

(I am actually writing a new book right now on the public ethics of what I am calling “the emerging evangelical center.” Hopefully this book will clarify the fact that there is more than an evangelical right and left. There is a center, too, and it is growing in impact and significance. If you are interested in internal evangelical politics, there’s your story. Look for the book with Baylor University Press next spring.)

To call this an evangelical left product is both unfair and sadly reflective of the degraded state of our internal evangelical dialogue. We instead hope it becomes a broadly embraced evangelical teaching document.

Also, we frame the issue within the document in a way that celebrates the Pentagon’s tightening up of its treatment of torture in its most recent revision of the Field Manual. We simply ask that this laudable progress be extended by federal law to every branch of the government. “Do what the Pentagon does” is hardly a radical anti-Bush, anti-Republican, or anti-American stance. Indeed, our website has seen a number of visitors who tell us our stance is much too mild.

The weakening of human rights protections under wartime conditions is a perennial human problem. And it is a problem that has surfaced in our nation in other times and other wars. We are simply addressing that problem from the core of evangelical theological and ethical convictions.

Don’t you care about torture or human rights issues elsewhere?

Absolutely. In the declaration, we decry torture by any government, any time, for any reason. We name a number of human rights problems that exist all around the world. Perhaps if we choose to continue as a free standing human rights organization we will be able to take more of those issues on in detail. But this document is about this particular problem, and our nagging sense that it has not yet been adequately resolved.

Don’t you take the war on terror seriously?

Absolutely. The drafters of this statement agree that terrorist attacks on the United States and other nations were acts of terrible evil and that we need to act to prevent more from taking place. On grounds of conscience, though, we believe that no branch of our government should use torture as part of its repertoire of tools for doing so.

What is the current administrative structure of EHR?

I am a full-time professor who fits in some hours to serve as the chair; the original group is still the steering committee; and Mary Head, my researcher and administrative assistant, is the only full-time staff person.

We have no official relationship with the National Association of Evangelicals, though we are deeply grateful for their approval of our statement.

We have no official relationship with the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, though we are grateful for their moral witness against torture, and for their strong support of our recently released statement.

People are already asking about whether we will evolve into a full-fledged advocacy organization, even whether we might sponsor campus chapters. Some seem to be imagining a much bigger operation than we were or are or probably ever will be.

Right now we are just people who put together what we hope is a valuable statement about human rights and torture, and are now trying to respond to all the media, emails, and other responses to the document. What we shall be in the future is a matter for further prayer and reflection.