STANFORD, Calif., March 5 (UPI) -- Judging by the escalating religious chatter on television, you would think President George W. Bush was planning a war on Iraq as a faith-based initiative. If this were the case, it would indeed be indefensible. No major Christian theology supports the idea of a holy war.
True, the Old Testament establishes rules for a holy war (Deuteronomy 20), but these pertained to a particular set of circumstances in the history of God and his people. No Christian denomination -- be it pacifist or not -- believes that any war is sacred.
War is always a manifestation of humanity's fallen state. It is always ungodly. It is testimony to man's estrangement from his Creator and therefore a symptom of original sin. George W. Bush, a well-catechized Methodist, would doubtless agree -- as he would presumably concur that armed policemen and prisons come under this category as well.
This is not to say that cops should not pull their guns in an emergency, or that prisons ought to be abolished. We are not questioning secular necessities here, but simply analyzing the human condition from a theological perspective. And all major strands of Christianity arrive at the same conclusion -- the human condition is uncleanly, which necessitates practical responses.
The Christian theological answer to this condition, of course, is that man is cleansed by God's grace through the individual's faith in Christ's sacrificial death and resurrection. But that's another level of argumentation; it does not prevent robberies and murders, and it does not rid the world of such lethal tyrants as Saddam Hussein.
In this unredeemed world, you cannot make airplanes fly or the traffic run smoothly by the power of the Gospel -- and thus by faith alone. For these things God has given us natural reason. Similarly, by virtue of reason a war against Iraq may or may not become necessary.
The Church is in no position to judge whether or not an attack against Saddam Hussein is reasonable. It possesses neither the intelligence information nor the tools, nor indeed the calling, to make such an assessment.
All the Church is called to do is to pray for secular leaders to act wisely, based upon their information and expertise. And it must remind them of the "just war" criteria articulated by St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther.
These criteria are that only a legitimate authority may declare war, provided its cause and intentions are just and it uses just means. War must be the last resort. It must have a reasonable chance of success.
But even if a government meets all these conditions, war is still -- theologically speaking -- a sinful enterprise. It never not right "coram Deo" (before God) but may be necessary and therefore justifiable "coram hominibus" (before men).
However, this still means, in the present case, that if George W. Bush, a committed Christian, orders an attack on Iraq, he has to turn to God for forgiveness. If he doesn't, most Christian denominations believe, he would be guilty of self-righteousness -- with dire consequences for eternity.
Yet such is the human predicament that inaction might lead to even more dire results -- for Bush and for humanity. Let's assume Bush knows -- based on the information only he and his people are privy to -- that leaving Saddam Hussein in power would result in a global calamity. Let's assume further this calamity occurred because of Bush's passivity.
Would this not imply a failure to live up to a divine calling to leadership? At the very least, theologians might then chide Bush for not making proper use of the divine gift of reason.
In the mushy religious rhetoric of Bush's people, the media, and anti-war clerics, these distinctions between faith and reason, law and Gospel the secular and the divine, get blurred -- to the detriment of all concerned.
That's bad enough. What is truly inexcusable, though, is the hysterical comportment of churchmen, who compare Bush to Hitler or accuse him of starting a war for personal gain -- meaning oil profits.
They have to be reminded that the Decalogue includes an 8th Commandment, which reads: "Thou shalt not bear false witness."
(UPI religion editor Uwe Siemon-Netto is currently a Hoover media fellow at Stanford University)