Founded in January 2006, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT) is a self-described “non-partisan” coalition composed of “men and women of faith and conscience.” Its mission statement expresses “profound opposition to torture and cruel and inhuman practices … being utilized by the United States government today,” characterizing those “grim abuses” as part of a “widespread pattern” rather than as “isolated incidents.” The coalition’s chief objective is to “work for the immediate cessation of torture by the United States, whether direct or by proxy, within our territory or abroad.”
NRCAT’s bedrock philosophy is embodied further in the “Statement of Conscience” that its constituent groups sign and affirm:
“Torture violates the basic dignity of the human person that all religions, in their highest ideals, hold dear. It degrades everyone involved — policy-makers, perpetrators and victims. It contradicts our nation’s most cherished ideals. Any policies that permit torture and inhumane treatment are shocking and morally intolerable.”
Involved in NRCAT’s creation was Princeton Seminary theologian George Hunsinger, who in 2006 crafted the coalition’s founding statement, which called for “an independent investigation of the severe human rights abuses at U.S. installations like Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan.”
NRCAT also calls for “prohibiting the practice of apprehending suspects and transporting them to countries that use torture as an interrogation technique”; “prohibiting the existence or use of secret prisons for U.S. detainees anywhere in the world”; restoring habeas corpus protection for all U.S. detainees, citizen and non-citizen alike”; and “prohibiting the use of evidence derived from torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment — including hearsay evidence — in the determination of guilt or innocence of a charged offense.”
Notably, NRCAT is entirely silent about torture and other transgressions committed by any nation other than the United States. Moreover, the organization declines to offer an operative definition of torture, or to admit that there is even a serious debate over the boundaries between torture and legitimate detention and interrogation policies.
On June 13, 2006, NRCAT ran an advertisement on the New York Times op-ed page declaring that “Torture is a Moral Issue.” Twenty-seven “religious leaders” signed the ad, which stated: “Nothing less is at stake in the torture abuse crisis than the soul of our nation.” Signers included former U.S. President Jimmy Carter; National Council of Churches General Secretary and former Democratic Congressman Bob Edgar; academics like theologian Stanley Hauerwas of Duke University, the aforementioned George Hunsinger of Princeton, and Glen Stassen of Fuller Seminary; civil rights leader and United Methodist minister Joseph Lowery; and Sojourners founder Jim Wallis.
Hauerwas has stated that “American imperialism” is the chief threat to world order and peace, and that most Americans, particularly Christians, too readily embrace an “ideology of America as empire.” In a similar vein, George Hunsinger denounced what he called the Bush administration’s pursuit of “righteous empire,” identifying the United States as a uniquely dangerous entity that religious people must confront and resist.
The NRCAT website features a study guide titled Way of Torture, Way of the Cross. Composed by Hunsinger and others, this publication presents Jesus Christ as an anti-imperialist who was tortured by the “military personnel” of his day.
To help spread its anti-torture message further, NRCAT urges local churches and religious groups to show their members the 80-minute HBO film _G_hosts of Abu Ghraib__, which “features the familiar and very disturbing pictures of torture at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison” and raises such questions as: “How much damage has the aftermath of Abu Ghraib had [sic] on America’s credibility as a defender of freedom and human rights around the world?”
On June 26, 2007, NRCAT joined the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, and the Leadership Council on Civil Rights in sponsoring a Washington, DC rally called “Day of Action to Restore Law and Justice.” At this event, NRCAT called on the U.S. “to end torture and secret prisons, to restore due process and fairness to our treatment of detainees, and to reform the abuses of the Military Commissions Act by enacting the Restoring the Constitution Act.”
NRCAT designated June 2008 as “Torture Awareness Month,” where churches were urged to hang banners reading “Torture is Wrong” on their outdoor marquees. Expressing its hope that America’s “leaders will find strength in the power of compassion and peace,” the organization portrayed its cause as a non-partisan, interfaith venture. “Torture is not a political issue,” said NRCAT President Linda Gustitis, a Unitarian. “It does not depend on whether or not you support the president or not, or a political party or not. We believe it is obligatory for people of faith to speak out against torture. Their silence condones it.” Gustitus estimated that the U.S. had tortured “hundreds” of people, and that it had killed eight of them in the process.
NRCAT’s member groups hail from Roman Catholic, evangelical Christian, mainline Protestant, Unitarian, Quaker, Orthodox Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh denominations. As of June 2008, NRCAT consisted of 77 “Participating Members,” including the Council on American Islamic Relations, the Islamic Society of North America, the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation, the National Council of Churches, and Pax Christi USA. NRCAT also had 129 “Endorsing Members,” among them being the 8th Day Center for Justice, the Mennonite Central Committee, Pax Christi Metro New York, and Sojourners. And most prominent among NRCAT’s 15 “Adjunct Members” were Amnesty International USA, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, and Peace Action Montgomery.
 Providing some perspective on the prisoner abuse that occurred at Abu Ghraib, columnist Tammy Bruce wrote: “I consider the vast majority of what happened at Abu Ghraib to be hazing — nothing more, nothing less. For weeks, all of us have been shouted at by the liberal media about how awful the events were, how having a man stripped naked in front of a woman was ‘torture,’ how making a prisoner wear women’s underwear was ‘horrific,’ and the … ‘charge’ of forcing men to wear maxi-pads.”