Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians and Lutherans appear to have jumped on the pacifist bandwagon. Where are President George W. Bush's supporters in the religious community? Why do evangelicals -- other than the Southern Baptists and the likes of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson -- seem so mum?
The impression that the leaders of the religious left are gaining the upper hand may be misleading. "Frustrated by Afghanistan, they now have a cause around which to organize," Diane Knippers, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, told United Press International.
"But if you do not hear much outspoken Christian support for the president, this doesn't mean that he has no supporters in the church. The reason they are keeping a low profile is that they don't want to cause harm to missionaries and indigenous Christians in Islamic countries," said Knippers, an Episcopalian.
Richard Cizik, the Washington-based vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals, confirmed this, adding that there have already been attacks on Christians in Muslim nations as a result of America's stance in the Iraq crisis.
There may be another reason why the NAE's voice is muted. While most of its member denominations and communities adhere to the traditional Christian "just war" doctrine, others are heirs to a radical and resolutely pacifist wing of the 16th-century Protestant Reformation.
These are the "peace churches," such as the Mennonites and the Quakers, the importance of whose role in the antiwar movement a generation ago was disproportionate to their minuscule size, and whose impact on the ethics taught in the seminaries of other denominations is still considerable.
This puts some mainline theologians in a quandary. While granting that Christian pacifism is "principled," the Rev. Gerald R. McDermott, an Episcopal priest and professor of religion and philosophy, made the point that "the use of violence can also be an act of love and justice."
"For example," explained McDermott, "Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a principled pacifist. Yet he said if a Christian saw a truck careening into a group of children, it had to be stopped. Hitler was such a truck, and so is Saddam Hussein, if it's true that he produces weapons of mass destruction wholesale and has al Qaida connections."
Bonhoeffer was martyred by the Nazis because of his role in the German resistance against Hitler. Said McDermott, "Can you imagine how many tens of millions of lives could have been spared had pacifism not prevented Britain from following Winston Churchill's advice to lead an attack against Hitler?"
This is the logic prevailing among the currently relatively silent majority of non-pacifists in most Christian denominations, which seem to mirror the attitudes of the U.S. population at large, though not necessarily the senior clergy, according to Catholic, Presbyterian, Lutheran and Methodist observers, who believe that 60 percent to 70 percent of their co-religionists in the U.S. support the Bush administration's Iraq policy.
McDermott reflected this majority view, saying, "You cannot make a case for pacifism from the Bible without running into many exegetical problems. For example, Jesus praised the centurion's faith (Matthew 8) but never told him to stop being a centurion, even though his job involved violence."
Many expressions of modern pacifism reflect considerations that are not exegetical. Richard John Neuhaus, the Catholic priest heading the Institute on Religion and Public Life in New York, discerns "the European identity crisis in that strong streak of anti-Americanism that is energizing reckless statements from the papal curia."
But, Neuhaus pointed out, "Despite claims from curial officials, it is notable that these statements are not by the Holy Father." While Pope John Paul II has warned against the war, his admonitions were clearly within the parameters of the traditional Christian just war doctrine.
Except for the strident antiwar protesters with roots in the 1960s, the line of communications is still open between today's pacifists and Christian supporters of the impending war. For instance, pro-Bush evangelicals and Methodist bishop Marshall L. Meadors of Emory University in Atlanta told UPI that the prayers of both groups have an identical focus:
"We pray fervently that Saddam Hussein will go into exile and spare us this war," Cizik and Meadors said in separate interviews. Meadors, to whose United Methodist Church the president belongs, linked his and many of his colleagues' opposition against a war on Iraq to Methodism's traditional "pietism with a social dimension."
This in turn was rooted "in John Wesley's doctrine of personal holiness and social holiness and a commitment to keep the two together," he said.
Unlike some left-wing churchmen who have compared Bush with Hitler, Meadors stressed, "We regularly offer personal prayers for our president, even though we disagree with him."
Does Meadors believe that Bush is also on his knees every day, praying for peace?
"Of course," the bishop replied, "I would certainly think that this is the case. After all, he is a United Methodist!"
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