Who Would Jesus Kill?

by , May 19, 2007

Religion, not patriotism, truly is the last refuge of the scoundrel. While most believers want to worship God and serve their fellow human beings, a few people twist the sacred for personal and political profit. Indeed, claiming that “God is on my side” plays the ultimate trump in any dispute.

Yet ambitious fraudsters are usually found out. More dangerous are those who genuinely believe that they are commanded to do ill. When bad policy is perceived as divine dogma, innocent people inevitably suffer.

So it has been with the Iraq war. Some self-professed Christians have so fervently backed the conflict that they might as well be sporting wristbands emblazoned with the slogan, “Who Would Jesus Kill?”

Today most people of faith believe that the invasion of Iraq was a mistake. The strongest opposition, according to a recent Gallup poll, comes from black Protestants, 78% to 18%, and Jews, 77%-21%. Catholics followed, with 53% to 46%.

But Mormons backed the war, 72% to 27%. White Protestants continued to support the conflict, 55% to 43%. Evangelicals have been among the Bush administration’s most consistent backers. Although even their support for the war has dropped, last fall 58 percent of evangelicals still endorsed the invasion.

Moreover, many of the most important and visible members of the Religious Right, from the late Jerry Falwell to Pat Robertson of the 700 Club to James Dobson of Focus on the Family to Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, backed President George W. Bush’s decision to go do war. The image is jarring: followers of the Prince of Peace enthusiastically advocating war, celebrating the decision to loose death and destruction upon other peoples.

The problem of war has long bedeviled Christendom. Pacifism is the most consistent Christian response. But pacifism does not prevent war or end violence. It only changes who triumphs after violence is unleashed.

In some cases, where war was begun over essentially frivolous causes between largely civilized powers with extremely limited ends, nonresistance might be the best, that is, least harmful, policy. However, in cases of aggression by evil, malignant powers, pacifism would expand the scope and magnify the consequences of evil. Unfortunately, war almost always presents Christians with difficult moral choices in complex geopolitical situations.

The ancient doctrine of “just war” should aid Christians in making such judgments. War must be a last resort; the authority waging war must be legitimate; the force employed must be proportional to the injury; non-combatants must not to be targeted; the war must be fought to redress a wrong; there must be a reasonable chance of success; the ultimate goal must be to reestablish peace. Unfortunately, however, though these principles are sound, they have been routinely used by war advocates to justify even the most dubious conflicts. Including Iraq.

Instead of critically reviewing the case for and against invading that nation, many evangelicals blithely accepted the Bush administration’s war rationale. They implicitly trusted the president, their co-religionist, relying on the administration’s dubious (and quickly discredited) claims.

For instance, Prison Fellowship founder Charles Colson cited administration arguments in explaining that just war theory should be “stretched” to include preemption of terrorism. He added: “Of course, all of this presupposes solid intelligence and the goodwill of U.S. and Western leaders.” Alas, it turns out that such intelligence was entirely lacking.

Richard Land pointed to Hussein’s development “at breakneck speed of weapons of mass destruction he plans to use against America and her allies” and the “direct line from those who attacked the U.S. [on 9/11] back to the nation of Iraq.” Of course, both claims were false.

Other evangelical leaders made a humanitarian case for war. James Dobson argued that “we are faced with another brutal tyrant. Saddam Hussein must be stopped. Appeasement of tyrants is never successful.” Gary Bauer, Chairman of Campaign for Working Families, observed that “Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a hell hole of torture and mass murder” and that “he allowed Iraq to become a safe haven for terrorists.”

Rev. Falwell entitled one article “God is Pro-War.” Until Christ’s return, he contended, “Christians must live as Galatians 6:2 instructs: ‘Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ’.” Charles Stanley, pastor of Atlanta’s First Baptist Church, argued that there are “biblical grounds” for a government to go to war “to liberate others in the world who are enslaved.”

Scripture does tell believers to lay down their lives for others. But it does not instruct Christians to lay down other people’s lives, as in taking the nation into war. Believers get no credit from instructing other people to do the sacrificing. Moreover, the consequences of the Iraq war and occupation – horrific violence and hundreds of thousands of deaths – is anything but humanitarian.

A number of religious leaders now rely on a bootstrap argument: the U.S. cannot leave because of what Iraq has become after the president followed their earlier advice to invade. That is, Washington must clean up the geopolitical mess that it created. In this view, the explosion of terrorist activity and sustained slaughter means the U.S. obviously cannot (and perhaps never can) leave. Said James Dobson of President Bush: “When it comes to the threat of terror, he gets it.” Richard Land contended that evangelicals “want Iraq to become a stable democracy and they’re not willing to give up yet.”

But the Bible emphasizes the importance of wisdom, which naturally leads to prudence in making public policy. Indeed, James explained: “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.” (James 1:5) The exercise of this wisdom suggests that the continuing occupation of Iraq is creating more terrorism and more deaths. Godly wisdom also counsels against increasing human sacrifice on behalf of goals that appear to be growing ever more distant.

Some on the Religious Right emphasized politics over policy. D. James Kennedy of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church denounced war opponents: “Why any churchman would choose to support [Saddam Hussein's regime] rather than to support our own president, I don’t know.” Pat Robertson, who previously had kind words for African dictators Mobutu Sese Seko and Charles Taylor, announced in late 2005 that “carping criticism” of President Bush “amounts to treason.” Although scripture enjoins prayer for and obedience to the political authorities, it does not demand blind support for bad, indeed, catastrophic (and arguably immoral), policy decisions by those leaders.

Finally, a desire to spur evangelism may have animated some on the Religious Right to back the war. Roberta Combs of the Christian Coalition argued in November 2003: “In the new country, under the new democracy, why should the official religion be Muslim? I think as Iraq becomes a democracy, there are going to be a lot of churches springing up.” Although a bevy of Christian ministries moved into Iraq after the U.S. invasion, the subsequent explosion of violence has ended most organized proselytizing. Moreover, as many as half of Iraq’s historic Christian community has fled the country in response to rising persecution. In short, Christians are now among the biggest victims of U.S. policy.

Obviously, people of good will can differ on the justification for any war, including Iraq. Christians can legitimately, though unpersuasively, in my view, believe that this war was necessary and just. However, the pro-war claims by leading representatives of American evangelicalism are embarrassing – actually, shockingly humiliating – after four years of war. Especially since few of the religious warriors even now are willing to reflect on the wisdom of their support for a war that has failed disastrously. For the most part, big-name evangelicals continue to believe that there was nothing wrong with initiating aggressive war against Iraq. Rather, they essentially see the problem as Washington’s failure to kill enough Iraqis. (Richard Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals was one of the few to be pained by the consequences of the war. Richard Land argued that the problems in Iraq were caused by an inadequate number of troops. Several other war advocates refused to respond when I contacted them.)

The evangelical community has softened a bit in its support for the war, but it remains among the deepest reservoirs of administration support. While the war may have dampened turnout last fall, most conservative Christians stuck with the administration. Those who drifted away did so out of disgust with the Mark Foley scandal or GOP spending abuses more than because of Iraq. After the election white evangelicals were far more likely to cite values than the war as the most important election issue.

Further evidence of conservative Christian enthusiasm for the Iraq war is surprising support for Rudy Giuliani for president. More white Protestants back Giuliani than the other leading Republicans even though he is a social liberal. They point to his tough attitude towards terrorism, apparently conflating Iraq with efforts to prevent new terror attacks.

Continuing conservative Christian support for the war centers around three arguments: 1) terrorists must be defeated; 2) freedom must be guaranteed for the Iraqi people; and 3) Israel must be safeguarded. The sad irony is that the war makes all three goals harder to achieve.

Iraq has created a cause celebre that has spurred terrorist recruitment, both of Iraqis and jihadists in nations around the world, including Britain, Indonesia, and Spain, all of which have suffered devastating terrorist attacks. Iraq also has created a perfect training ground for urban terrorism; the problem is likely to worsen so long as the U.S. occupies the country.

America’s presence in Iraq has not and will not create a liberal, capitalist, democratic state. The primary problem for Iraq is sectarian division, not terrorism, which is exacerbated by the U.S. occupation. Ultimately, only the Iraqis will be able to find the path to peace and unity. Washington erred in believing that it could impose a Western political order on Iraq, that the latter possessed the underlying civic culture and civil institutions necessary for a functioning liberal democracy. Unfortunately, the U.S. invasion unleashed untold death and violence rather than civic mindedness and religious tolerance. Washington must not commit the further mistake of assuming that a continuing military occupation can create the necessary culture and institutions.

As for Israel, there is no special Christian duty to what is, after all, a secular nation ruled by atheists. Modern Israel shares geography with ancient Israel, nothing more. Anyway, Israel is a regional superpower capable of deterring any of its neighbors; many proud Israelis bridle at the image of their nation as a helpless pygmy requiring Washington’s protection.

Israel’s primary problem is internal: how to maintain a state that is both Jewish and democratic while occupying territory containing several million Muslim Palestinians. Christian supporters of Israel face the same conundrum, since the dictates of Biblical justice apply to Palestinians no less than to Israelis. The path to peace is never going to be easy, but by stoking Islamist passions the U.S. occupation of Iraq inflames still further Arab antagonism towards Israel and increases the terrorist forces likely to turn their eventual attention to Israel. Indeed, many Israelis today fear the spread of al-Qaeda to the territories, perhaps the one Muslim area yet free of bin Laden’s pestilent activities.

All of these arguments, then, recommend an American withdrawal from Iraq. The administration’s case for continued occupation is based on the same ideological fantasies which led to the initial invasion. The Bush administration and its neoconservative Greek chorus have been wrong about every issue – Iraq’s WMD threat and terrorist ties; the reception to be accorded U.S. troops; the popularity of Iraqi exiles maneuvering for power; the number of American soldiers and amount of American money necessary for reconstruction; the willingness of other nations to aid the U.S. effort; the evolution of a tolerant and liberal Iraqi democracy; and the spread of pro-American democracies throughout the Middle East. No one should treat seriously the administration’s latest promises of progress in Iraq. American evangelicals, in particular, should stop being fooled simply because the president shares their theology.

Of course, Iraq is not the only foreign policy issue for the Religious Right. Many of the movement’s forays into international issues have been modest – backing legislation to pressure North Korea on human rights and combat AIDS in Africa. Evangelicals such as Richard Land also are pressing immigration reform which combines improved border control with legalization of the millions who already have entered America.

However, religious conservatives increasingly are promoting military action abroad. More than a century ago President William McKinley claimed that he prayerfully decided to seize the Philippines after ousting Spain in the Spanish-American war – an occupation resulted in hundreds of thousands of needless deaths among Filipinos who resisted U.S. imperialistic control. But later it was religious progressives who seemed most enthused about war, enthusiastically campaigning for Woodrow Wilson’s supposed crusade for democracy in World War I, for instance.

Today, however, some evangelicals promote conflict all over. A number of Christians put the interests of Israel ahead of those of America. (A more benign interpretation is that they view the most extreme policies of Israel’s Likud party as also benefiting the U.S., but the practical consequences are the same.) So-called Christian Zionists demand that Washington support Israel irrespective of its actions, so long as Israel is expanding at the expense of surrounding Arab populations. For instance, evangelical leaders ranging from John Hagee, founder of Christians United for Israel, to James Dobson did more than just support Israel’s invasion of Lebanon; they urged Israel to attack more broadly and fiercely.

Some evangelicals also target Iran. Dobson, trading his expertise in family psychology for opinions in foreign policy, recently compared Iran’s president to Adolf Hitler. Dobson then proclaimed: “somebody ought to be standing up and saying, ‘We are being threatened and we are going to meet this with force – whatever’s necessary’.”

Intervention in Sudan, though predominantly a left-wing cause, also has gained traction among the Religious Right. Last October a couple of dozen evangelical leaders, including such Iraq war enthusiasts as Richard Land, signed a letter supporting military action in Sudan. So does Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), the evangelical turned Catholic running for president.

A preference for hawkish intervention influences other political issues. For instance, last fall Concerned Women of America called for the confirmation of John Bolton as UN ambassador. Although well-qualified for the post, Bolton is highly controversial, a partisan lightening rod loved by the right and detested by the left. CWA cited Bolton’s “background and credentials,” leaving unexplained why his appointment was a religious issue.

None of these positions is ipso facto illegitimate. But Christians should be particularly humble before advocating war. War means killing, of innocent and criminal alike. It means destroying the social stability and security that creates an environment conducive for people to worship God, raise families, create communities, work productively, and achieve success – in short, to enjoy safe and satisfying lives. Wars rarely turn out as expected, and the unintended consequences, as in Iraq, often are catastrophic.

Indeed, in Iraq the U.S. has essentially killed hundreds of thousands of people in the name of humanitarianism. Christians, even more than their unbelieving neighbors, should be pained by the horror of sectarian conflict unleashed by the actions of their government with their support. Believers especially should eschew nationalistic triumphalism in pursuit of war. And when they err, like predicting health, wealth, liberty, and happiness in occupied Iraq, they should acknowledge fault – and seek forgiveness. At the very least they should exhibit humility before saddling their white horses to begin another crusade.

Thankfully, some religious activists have begun to fight for the political soul of Christian warrior wannabees. There is a small evangelical religious (and antiwar) left, represented by Jim Wallis of Sojourners magazine, for instance

The website Believers Against the War warns: “many of God’s people have forsaken the gospel of Christ and turned their hearts toward the corrupted teachings of men. Political allegiances have been bought in exchange for the love of sound doctrine – many are being led astray.” The group advocates that believers “learn what the Bible has to say about peace,” talk to their ministers, protest against the war, contact legislators and journalists, learn about the military, and pray. Believers against the War asserts simply: “The war in Iraq is ungodly, immoral, and unconstitutional – and we should pull all of our combat troops out immediately!”

Another like-minded group is KingdomCitizenship.org. Founder Timothy L. Price is no pacifist, but understandably worries that “to America’s enemies, Jesus, who is the alleged focus of Christianity, becomes the advocate of the invaders as He was in the Crusades.” Price appropriately asserts “the Kingdom of God as wholly separate from America or its interests.”

There is no one Christian foreign policy. Christians and other people of faith can legitimately disagree about the validity of war, including Iraq, and its consequences. But by any measure Iraq today is a disaster, the product of a very un-Christian mix of callousness, ignorance, partisanship, selfishness, incompetence, and hubris. The experience in Iraq should prompt religious conservatives to step back in humility and reconsider their tendency to confuse ideology with theology, and politics with faith. The debacle in Iraq has discredited much of America’s political establishment, but perhaps none more than members of the Religious Right. Followers of the Prince of Peace should be particularly ashamed of serving as the apostles of war.

Read more by Doug Bandow