The role of the LDS church in developing torture


The brutal “enhanced interrogation techniques” employed by the CIA to extract information from suspected terrorists were developed by two Mormon psychologists, Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell. 1 The techniques included waterboarding, sleep deprivation and forcing prisoners to assume “stress positions.”

John Rizzo, the acting CIA general counsel who met with the psychologists, wrote in his book, “Company Man,” that he found some of what Mitchell and Jessen were recommending “sadistic and terrifying.” One technique, he wrote, was “so gruesome that the Justice Department later stopped short of approving it.”

In fact, the Mormon church provided four key players in  the CIA’s quest to evade the Geneva Convention, since Judge Jay Bybee signed off on memo’s that redefined the term “torture”, enabling interrogators to use more brutal methods in their attempts to extract information from detainees. Rounding out this infamous group is Timothy Flanigan,  deputy White House counsel at the time, and one of five attorneys who referred to themselves as the “War Council”.  2

How is it that a church that undoubtedly preaches love and basic Christian goodness has in its midst four individuals who developed, enabled, and implemented policies and techniques that resulted in the brutal torture of human beings in the almost universally fruitless search for useful intelligence information?

I believe the problem lies with the LDS church’s supreme emphasis on authority. Joseph Smith claimed to have restored God’s only “true church” and proper “priesthood authority”. The leaders of the LDS church continually teach that authority is necessary in all important things, from leadership of the church, to leadership of the ward, to leadership of the home.

There is a clear hierarchy in all things and that hierarchy is to be respected and obeyed.

If two people disagree on something within the church or their families, the individual with the highest authority prevails.

Authority is supremely important in the LDS church.  Talks in LDS General Conference stress that members are not to doubt or question the authority of their church leaders. Leaders are called of God, given priesthood authority through a lineage dating back to Adam, and because of that will not lead membership of the church astray. Members are reminded in ways big and small that if they have opinions which contradict those in authority over them the member is the one at fault, not the authority figure, and that member must bring themselves in line or be in sin.

The 12th Article of Faith states, “We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.” This in itself is a fairly noble belief. The LDS church does not support anarchy or special privilege of its membership to violate the laws of the land. However, the church teaches that the United States was formed by men inspired of God expressly for the purpose of creating a country with the necessary freedoms in place so that God could return the true and everlasting gospel of Jesus Christ to the earth. The leaders of the United States, while highly imperfect, have authority that protects our nation and our freedoms, especially the religious freedoms Mormons value so highly. Once again, the leaders of our land have authority that has an almost divine sanction to it, at least at its origins.

Now, many of you may have heard of the Milgram experiment. In 1961, Yale University researcher Stanley Milgram set up an experiment in which participants were instructed to deliver increasingly strong electric shocks to invisible individuals. The individuals, while not seen, could be clearly heard. While the individuals received no actual shock, the participants believed that they were administering higher and higher levels of shock, and even as the invisible recipient screamed and begged to stop, up to 2/3 of the participants administered shock all the way up to the highest 450-volt level.


Participants were more likely to administer the shocks when a researcher was in the same room with them. Results remained consistent across racial groups and genders.

The Milgram study showed that people will do seemingly immoral things when told to by an authority figure, and has served as an important means of understanding the events that occurred in Nazi Germany as well as at other times throughout human history.

Stanley Milgram declared, “A substantial proportion of people do what they are told to do, irrespective of the content of the act and without limitations of conscience, so long as they perceive that the command comes from a legitimate authority.” According to Martha Stout, Ph.D., in her book, The Sociopath Next Door,

Milgram believed that authority could put conscience to sleep mainly because the obedient person makes an “adjustment of thought,” which is to see himself as not responsible for his own actions. In his mind, he is no longer a person who must act in a morally accountable way, but the agent of an external authority to whom he attributes all responsibility and initiative. This “adjustment of thought” makes it much easier for benign leadership to establish order and control, but by the same psychological mechanism, it has countless times rolled out the red carpet for self-serving, malevolent, and sociopathic “authorities.”” (page 63)

A paper recently published in the British Journal of Social Psychology by researchers Professor Alex Haslam (University of Queensland), Professor Stephen Reicher (University of St Andrews), Professor Kathryn Millard (Macquarie University) and Professor Rachel McDonald (University of Kansas) argues that the meaning of the experiment has been misunderstood. 3

Participants in the Milgram experiment were not distressed by their participation, but rather felt happy that they were part of an important contribution to science.

Professor Haslam said: ““This provides new insight into the psychology of oppression and gels with other evidence that perpetrators are generally motivated, not by a desire to do evil, but by a sense that what they are doing is worthy and noble.”

Professor Reicher added: “This new analysis suggests that we may have misunderstood the ethical as well as the theoretical issues raised by Milgram’s studies. We need to ask whether it is right to protect participants’ own wellbeing by leading them to think that harming the wellbeing of others can be justified as long as it is in a good cause.”

So four individuals, from a  religious background that heavily stresses authority and obedience, and who esteem their government as being originally sanctioned by God participate in the development of a scheme of cruel and inhumane torture that they perceive as for the betterment of society and the protection of the (God-given) American way of life

It would appear that is the case, given that earlier this year, James Mitchell defended himself by stating, “I’m just a guy who got asked to do something for his country.”

And as Mormon Studies expert Professor Patrick Mason has told Mormon writer Joanna Brooks,  “Mormonism has “no systematic theology” on issues like human rights or poverty or war. Its view of morality is “highly individualized.””

In fact, within the LDS church there is virtually no discussion of morality. Right and wrong comes from scripture and revelation, usually to those with priesthood authority. Morality, in most LDS discussions, refers to keeping the LDS law of chastity, the Mormon rules for sexual conduct, not to the generalized means of determining right from wrong. Search for the word “morality” on and this is what you will get.

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The LDS church is not concerned with the question of morality, i.e., the constantly evolving discussion of right and wrong that has occupied philosophers and religionists for millennia. Rather, the LDS church teaches obedience above all else and defines morality in terms of one specific behavior.

The LDS mentality is a perfect breeding ground for the type of individual capable of doing what Jessen, Mitchell, Bybee and Flanigan have done. It would stand to reason that the antidote would be independent thought, support of reason, and questioning of authority. And those aren’t things you’re going to learn in any Mormon church.


Cherry O. Top Written by:


  1. Andrew
    December 16, 2014

    Interesting article.A sad commentary not only about the Lds church(inmo that would cover all religion that man has invented to justify its mistreatment and supression and manipulation of the human spirit for its own ends).I know I know I really should be more forth coming on my opinion and not keep it bottled up inside.The Catholics also had some issues with a small thing called the inqusition as have most if not all religions/governments etc over the span of history because they are all created by humans and we are flawed to say the least.Any idea taken to the extreme and radicalized is frought with problems and by and large has its original purpose which starts out with the best of intentions perverted and misused.Mormonisim is no different it is sad that that the justification of this behaviour is blamed on some one else in authority or God said it was ok to do it.Humanity is so easily manipulated.

  2. Mark
    December 15, 2014

    I love this comment and it is so true:
    “If two people disagree on something within the church or their families, the individual with the highest authority prevails.”

    I really love your posts

  3. otterpop
    December 15, 2014

    The LDS church may not have a public stance on torture, but the Book of Mormon and Doctrine & Covenants are not silent on human rights, even in wartime.

    For example, Moroni 9:8-10 decries the use of torture, including food and water deprivation, as an evil and an abomination before god.

    Alma 48:14, a wartime directive to never give offense to an enemy.

    Mormon 4, where the Nephites pursued unnecessary, non-defensive war and evil against their enemies … And were consequently punished by god with complete destruction.

    D&C 134:11, which says all men – presumably including torture victims – should be free from personal abuse and any unlawful assaults and encroachments, and should have a mandate from God too defend themselves.

    • Profet
      December 15, 2014

      Religions often go against their own doctrine because ‘god said so’

      Ultimately if you give it serious thought you realize eventually that every bad thing you wouldn’t do is something God has done or commanded men to do…. And this is the guy we should worship? Doesn’t it make far more sense these people are never actually talking to God at all and they are just making it up as they go along? Isn’t it possible even they don’t realize they have no more connection to the divine than Muhammed or Warren Jeffs or any other person that has condoned their horrible behavior because ‘god said so’?

    • Cherry O. Top
      December 15, 2014

      Otterpop, Moroni 9:8-10 does indeed explicitly mention torture and decry it as foul. Also in these verses it mentions rape and describes it as depriving the daughters of the Lamanites of “that which was most dear and precious above all things, which is chastity and virtue”, which I argue is a pretty immoral description of rape. Rape may deprive a woman of her virginity and violate her body but it is completely irrelevant to her chastity and virtue. Chastity and virtue are things willing held and willingly given, they cannot be taken by force. This particular verse is still used to teach “morality” (i.e., sexual purity) within the church and has caused some pretty significant damage to the psychological well-being of LDS rape and sexual abuse victims. Women who are violated sexually are no less moral or chaste than women who have never been touched.

      You are correct about Mormon 4, however, in 1 Nephi 3, Nephi is commanded by the Lord to cut the head off a man who has passed out drunk in the street, which seems an unnecessary, non defensive murder. Yet Nephi was considered righteous and rewarded.

      I might argue that D&C 134:11 could be used to justify the behavior of the offending four Mormons in my article, as it says, “…we believe that men are justified in defending themselves, the friends and property, and the government from the unlawful assaults and encroachments of all persons in times of exigency, where immediate appeal cannot be made to the laws, and relief afforded.” In truth that may be a stretch, but people have twisted scriptures far more for far less. This particular scripture is dealing with the rights of the saints to defend themselves against the local mobs. At the risk of oversimplifying the situation, much of the mob hysteria was a result of Joseph Smith’s coercion of young girls and women into adulterous relationships under the label of “celestial marriage” and polygamy. For those of us who don’t believe this was a commandment from God, convincing 14, 15 and 16 year old girls to marry a 30+ year old man through means of fear and promise of eternal reward is immoral behavior, and not just in the LDS “sexual purity” sense.

      My point in rebutting those specific scriptures is not to try to prove you wrong but to argue that while LDS scripture does have plenty to say about right and wrong, it also includes examples of immoral behavior being sanctioned by God. Morality in Mormonism, as in other religions, is situational, and depends on the decree of a higher authority. And it is this precise reliance on higher authority, and exaggerated respect for it, that plays into enabling these four otherwise upstanding Mormons to devise and help commit horrible atrocities against other human beings.

      • otterpop
        December 17, 2014

        Cherry O. Top, I couldn’t agree more about the contradictory scriptures and the way the LDS church twists (or ignores) them to fit their agenda. However, the fact that LDS scriptures on human and civil rights do exist should at least create some doubt in the minds of those either supporting or turning a blind eye to ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques.

        But on a larger scale, I find it unconscionable that the LDS church not only remains silent on the issue of torture, but also 1) allows mormons who torture to remain members in full fellowship, 2) promotes members like Bruce Jessen to the office of Bishop with full knowledge that he co-designed the torture program with another mormon, and 3) profited from tithing paid on Jessen’s and Mitchell’s $80 million dollar torture program, as well as the salaries of other mormons in the Bush administration, such as Jay Bybee and Timothy Flanigan, who authorized the torture policy, and others who implemented it.

        The LDS leadership may claim that their ongoing silence reflects their neutrality on public issues, but if so, where was their political neutrality during their very public support of California’s Proposition 8, which deprived gays of the legal right to marry and inherit in California. They promoted Proposition 8 from the pulpit, solicited donations from congregations coast to coast, lobbied legislators and advertised extensively to amend California’s constitution and circumvent the ongoing court battle.

        Or perhaps they will claim that only now, with the official 2014 Senate report have they become aware of Jessen’s involvement in the torture program. But the names of Bruce Jessen, James Mitchell, Jay Bybee and Timothy Flanigan – all members of the LDS church – were reported in the Salt Lake Tribune at least by April 2009 ( Three years later, Bruce Jessen’s calling as a bishop in 2012 was approved by the leadership in Salt Lake (as with all callings to a bishopric). Their only response to The Spokesman on the issue of his personal worthiness as an architect of torture was that they were ‘looking into this matter’ (

        The callous silence and complicity of the LDS church on torture, as well as its direct involvement in denying civil rights to other groups, are clear indicators that it has forgotten its own battles for civil liberties and the right to exist, such as the Extermination Order, the Battle of Nauvoo and the Utah War. Its leaders’ actions and lack of compassion belie their insistence that they are truly a world-class religion, a light on the hill manifesting God’s love for all, and a faith of good works for all people.

        Because apparently, enhanced interrogation tactics such as rendition, beating, starvation, thirst, sleep deprivation, simulated drowning and rectal violation do not contradict church policy. Apparently, as long as the LDS church gets its tithing, and as long as the prisoner is a Moslem accused without trial as an enemy of the state, Christ’s command to ‘Love your enemies and do good to them which hate you’ does not apply. Apparently, the architects of torture deserve advancement in the LDS church.

        Or perhaps the LDS leadership – the self-proclaimed representatives of Christ on earth, with all the authority and power of heaven at their disposal as the prophets, seers and revelators of our times – perhaps they’re too afraid to speak out against their government and risk a billion dollars in tax exemptions annually.

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