Last week, I was blessed to be able to attend the National Summit on Torture, an amazing interfaith conference put together by Evangelicals for Human Rights (EHR).  EHR is one of the leading organizations pushing the evangelical agenda to focus on social justice issues, such as global poverty, the environment, and U.S.-sponsored torture.  The program was a mixture of religious dialogue, presentations from experts in the field (such as lawyers working in Guantanamo, retired military leaders working to end torture, and scholars who focus on terrorism), and networking opportunity for activists from across the country. It was particularly meaningful for me to have a chance to meet in person so many of the dedicated people I speak with on the phone all the time! Rabbi Brian Walt, RHR-NA’s Executive Director, served as a respondent on a panel titled “What the Torture Debate Reveals about American Christianity,” and Rabbi Charles Feinberg and I offered prayers.

For those of us who were not evangelicals, the Summit (subtitled “Religious Faith, Torture, and Our National Soul”) at times felt like a window onto a private conversation. White Southern Evangelicals have been some of the most consistent supporters of the Bush Administration and its policies, and are also most likely to vote based on their religious beliefs. How could this community harness its faith to bring about a renewed American commitment to human rights? How could they take responsibility for the results of their overall silence on this issue?

On Thursday morning, EHR released the results of a survey of southern evangelicals which showed that the majority of them support the use of torture in some or all circumstance. Two related results were surprising. The first is that this population tended to make decisions on torture not out of a perspective of faith (those whose views were informed by Christian values tended to be against torture), but out of life experiences and common sense. If the question were rephrased to reflect a values statement (“the U.S. government should not use methods against our enemies that we would not want used on American soldiers”-similar to the Christian “golden rule”), people tended to change their opinion against torture. The second is that the majority believes that the government currently uses torture in the war on terror-even though it has said it does not. Watch the press conference about the poll.

A few people commented to me that they doubted that the Jewish community would be able to hold such a self-critical conversation in a space open to outsiders. But the questions the evangelicals asked of themselves are ones we should all be considering.  While the Jewish community has spoken out against torture, it has not been at the forefront of our agenda, nor are we insisting that it be so in the upcoming election. And while we have no poll data on Jewish views about torture, my suspicion is that many Jews would probably say that torture is occasionally justified if a true ticking time bomb case existed, either here or in Israel.

Despite all of the language of faith, and the inspiring community of activists of all religious backgrounds present at the Summit, what has stayed with me was the patriotism of the participants. Patriotism is not a term we on the religious left embrace much-and indeed, we get slammed for being anti-American. But it was clear to me that many people in the anti-torture movement (which encompasses far more than the usual lefty suspects and cuts across party lines) are motivated from a profound sense of love of country.

The use of torture by the American government after 9/11, and the subsequent erosion of the rule of law, represented a failure of our national values at the most profound level. In countless wars, beginning with George Washington’s refusal to treat British soldiers as barbarically as his own captured troops were treated, the United States acted humanely towards its prisoners. We used to be an or la goyim, a light to other nations, for the way we upheld the human rights of others. The people who have fought against torture do not feel safer because our government has declared that the war on terror requires new rules of engagement. They feel profoundly ashamed, and their love of country demands a return to American values. These motivating factors are also very clear from Jane Mayer’s new book, The Dark Side.

My colleague Rabbi Charles Feinberg echoed some of these themes during his kavannah Friday morning:
“Will we have the courage to follow Abraham’s example [in standing up to God to demand justice]?  Will we be courageous to challenge other people of faith and our fellow Americans?  Will we have the courage to challenge our elected leaders to be faithful to the founding principles of this great Republic?   Was not this Republic founded on the proposition that all human beings possess certain inalienable rights?  Was not this Republic founded on the rule of law, which means that no evidence can be hidden from the accused and that the accused has the right to confront and question his accusers?    Above all have we not prided ourselves on our abhorrence of committing acts of blatant cruelty and torture?”

Stopping torture is an American Jewish issue, not just one or the other. Being citizens of this country has been a source of pride for many of our families, who came here because here we could be free.  In my work with Jews in the fight against torture, I often cite Jewish religious values such as the right against self-incrimination or the concept of tzelem elohim, each of one us being created in the image of God. But I think that focusing on these misses some of what motivates American Jews. I do speak about the Jewish understanding of the plight of the stranger, based on the experience of the Exodus. What I have not done enough is to appeal to American Jews out of their sense of being American.

Thursday night, I had the pleasure of speaking with Thomas Wilner, a prominent Washington lawyer with Shearman and Sterling, who has represented a dozen Kuwaiti citizens held at the Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba. In his presentation to the Summit, Wilner (who is Jewish) spoke of his religion being American patriotism more than anything else, and that this was the basis for much of his work on behalf of detainees. For his family, love of country was strong and devoted: he told the beautiful story of hearing his grandfather recite the Gettysburg address from memory during a childhood visit to the battlefield. Later, he and I spoke about how important the pride in being American, with all of the positive values that it stood for, had been for generations of American Jews.

The use of torture by our government undermines the Jewish symbolism of “America.”  Think of our parents and grandparents who endured to bring their families here, who wore their American uniforms with pride during WWII because they were fighting a greater evil.
Whether we are Jews first or Americans first, we have an obligation that to declare that the United States must stand for its core values and end torture.

What can we do? There are two things you can do today to take action. The first is to join K’vod Habriot: A Jewish Human Rights Network, which is continuing the work of the Jewish Campaign Against Torture. It is critical in the coming weeks that bringing about an end to U.S.-sponsored torture and ensuring a return to the rule of law. Members of the K’vod Habriot will be undertaking key actions over the coming months to ensure that the next Administration-whoever it is-takes a stand against torture. Join K’vod Habriot today!

The second is to join the interfaith movement asking the next President to take that stand, via an Executive Order against torture. Because so much of what has happened is already illegal, and has come about because of the expansion of Executive powers in the current Administration, an Executive Order against Torture would symbolize a change in the direction of our national leadership and tell the world decisively that no branch of the American government tortures or uses inhumane interrogation techniques. Sign the interfaith Declaration of Principles for an Executive Order against torture.

Cross-posted to www.rhr-na.org.