In recent weeks, the physical abuse and sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers has come up whenever Pat Nolan, a prison reform activist, meets other Christians. It was discussed at his Tuesday night Bible study at St. John the Apostle Catholic Church in Leesburg. It also arose during a meeting of an informal group of Christian professionals in the District.

"People were shocked and troubled and baffled. How could people that wear our uniform do this?" recalled Nolan, president of Reston-based Justice Fellowship, an affiliate of Charles Colson's Prison Fellowship ministry.

The conversations usually turned to how "our young people are just immersed in a sexual culture" in which "a majority of shows on TV today have some sexual theme," Nolan said. "Our kids are bombarded with this."

The abuse has been addressed in sermons, Bible study groups and official statements from religious leaders. And the Washington-based Interfaith Alliance has asked people across the country to turn on lights or candles all night tomorrow as a way "to acknowledge our anguish and need for self-examination, and to foster reconciliation," the alliance's president, the Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, announced this week.

In all these responses, condemnation of the soldiers' behavior has been widespread. But so has reflection, as people of faith search for answers to why it occurred. Some blame a society that tolerates extremes of sexual expression in entertainment, while others cite an antipathy toward Muslims and a morality since Sept. 11, 2001, that regards the war on terrorism in absolutist terms.

Some U.S. military guards accused of wrongdoing at the Iraqi prison of Abu Ghraib have said they were told to "soften up" prisoners so they would speak more freely during interrogations. Whether the guards were directed -- or decided on their own -- to use sexual humiliation as the means is not clear. But it has become a noteworthy aspect of the scandal.

Some ethicists and religious activists said they were struck by a comment of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in an interview with the New York Times. Asked about his 51/2 years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, during which he was severely tortured, McCain said: "I was never subjected to sexual humiliation and degradation."

Several agreed with Nolan that the sexual nature of the abuse of Iraqi prisoners should not come as a surprise given the open sexuality of American culture.

"There is a cultural ethos that some of these people brought with them when they . . . volunteered to go into the Army . . . [that] knows no bounds when it comes to propriety," said Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Washington-based Ethics and Public Policy Center, a think tank devoted to moral aspects of public policy.

Paul Vitz, a Catholic professor of psychology at New York University who studies the intersection of religion and psychology, said "there is nothing non-American" about what the guards did.

"For a large number of young people today, particularly young men, the only moral framework they get is through the popular media," including computer games and Web sites bursting with violence and sex, Vitz added. "When people immerse themselves in the pornography and violence of American pop culture, it's not surprising it has consequences. It's a no-brainer."

Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., and an evangelical Christian, agreed that the prisoners' sexual humiliation is in part a product of America's "highly sexualized" popular culture. But he said the scandal is even more upsetting because it suggests that the type of abuse was deliberately chosen to offend Muslims' strict modesty standards.

"This kind of sexual humiliation, it's bad enough to any human being," Mouw said. "But when it also violates deep convictions Muslims have about nudity and having [their] private parts exposed in front of other men and acting out homosexual things and being humiliated by women in your nakedness, it's deeply violating."

Mouw, who questioned the moral justification for the war in Iraq before the U.S. invasion, said he believes that antipathy to Muslims may also have contributed to the atmosphere in which the sexual abuse was allowed to happen.

"I think the overlay on this is a very strong tendency in our culture to demonize Muslims . . . that goes beyond what we did ideologically in our definition of" Germans and Koreans in past wars, Mouw said. "It's all tied up with a very strong religious warfare kind of mentality -- that they're on a jihad against us and we need to respond in kind."

The Rev. Gerard J. McGlone, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University who has treated sex offenders, said the sexual abuse inflicted on the Iraqis can partly be explained by a simplistic view of the war on terrorism as one of "us against them."

"When you say, 'I can, in the name of God, go after all these Islamic people and Iraqis and treat them in whatever way I want' . . . it's bad theology and toxic morality because anything I do in the name of God is justified," McGlone said.

Even for those who say they are not fighting Islam, the Jesuit priest added, "the good versus the evil paradigm is in place. This is absolute bad morality besides being bad foreign policy. The world is not black and white . . . and this is dominating the military right now."

Similar observations were voiced by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in a statement on the abuse. It has "brought shame upon our nation, is an affront to our most basic ideals, and will undermine legitimate efforts to confront the very real threats faced by our nation and the world," the bishops said.

They went on to warn against giving in to "moral risks" raised by the scandal. One such risk, they said, is to believe that Americans do not have "the moral obligation to uphold the basic rights even of our worst enemies" because of "feelings of victimization and moral superiority."

A second temptation, the bishops said, is accepting "an ends-justify-the-means morality" because of "the inherent justice of our cause and the perceived necessities involved in stopping terrorism."

Bishops of the United Methodist Church also addressed the prisoner abuse in a statement, saying that "the cycle of violence in which the United States is engaged has created a context for the denigration of human dignity and gross violations of human rights of Iraqi prisoners of war."

For clergy in Cumberland, Md., the scandal is a sensitive topic because the 372nd Military Police Company -- the unit to which the alleged abusers are attached -- is based nearby.

The Rev. Charles Irzkus, pastor of Christ Lutheran Church in Cumberland, said he has made the scandal a priority in his sermons even though two members of the unit, who are not among the accused guards, are in his congregation.

"We needed to speak to what was on the hearts and minds of everyone in this community," Irzkus said.

He added that he always makes three points.

"We stand with the victims, first of all," Irzkus said. "After that, we stand with other members of the 372nd who did not do anything wrong but it's now guilt by association. . . . Finally, we stand with those accused in the sense that . . . we condemn what they have done but we hope there can be healing in their lives."

Rabbi Stephen Sniderman of Cumberland's B'er Chayim Congregation has also publicly addressed the abuse. "I don't care if these people knew about the Geneva Conventions or not," he said, "they still shouldn't behave this way. . . . You still don't treat people that way."

At the same time, Sniderman said, the scandal does not mean "that American society is thoroughly rotten. . . . It doesn't reflect on our entire society. Otherwise, you and I wouldn't be so . . . disgusted."

Many in the faith community agree that abusive acts committed by individuals should not indict an entire society. But others contend that since the abuse reflects some aspects of American society, it demands a communal response.

"To me, this just means our national posturing of moral superiority has been exposed for the sham that it is," said university president Mouw. "We need to be much more humble among nations."

Psychotherapist Richard Sipe, a former Benedictine priest who has treated Catholic priests for sexual problems, observed that "secrecy is the royal road to scandal. Everyone is saying this isn't our policy, these aren't our values, and yet someone along the line said, 'This is the way to do it.' It was a secret operation. We can't deny that it comes out of an American system."

As such, Sipe asked, "does it call for an examination of not only our political conscience but our individual conscience?"

A detainee looks out from an outdoor detention center in the Abu Ghraib prison on the outskirts of Baghdad.A former Iraqi detainee in Abu Ghraib gestures during an interview. He said his U.S. captors told him he was photographed hooded and naked.Iraqi detainees stand behind razor wire at the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad. Several U.S. soldiers face courts-martial over their treatment of Iraqi prisoners.