As the United States and Britain prepare for a possible war against Iraq, religious leaders from both countries are waging an all-out campaign for peace. Faith-based idealism, however, is no substitute for a sober judgment of the threat from Baghdad.
Anglo-American opposition began last fall, when a coalition of ministers from both nations condemned an attack on Iraq as “illegal, unwise and immoral.” Beginning with a favorite pacifist quotation found in Isaiah — “nation shall not lift up sword against nation” — they issued a joint statement citing weapons inspections and the lifting of sanctions as the best way to disarm Saddam Hussein. Signed by 70 church leaders, the statement has supplied the sound bites for war opponents over the last several months.
A delegation from the National Council of Churches, after returning from a recent trip to Baghdad, predicted “widespread suffering and death” among the Iraqi people in the event of war.
The Church of England has warned that conflict could unleash “gross violations of human rights” and kill “millions of innocent people.” Last week the newly installed Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, questioned whether the United States and Britain are “concerned only about securing Western interests, about oil and influence.”
Not a scintilla of evidence is offered to support these claims. But they allow critics to ignore the human rights atrocities that have become the norm in Iraq. Last year’s report by Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office — based on interviews with Iraqi exiles and evidence from human-rights groups — describes a culture of “widespread terror.” Arbitrary arrests and torture are systematic. Female political prisoners are raped as a matter of policy. Prison executions occur without due process.
“These grave violations of human rights are not the work of a number of overzealous individuals,” the report said, “but the deliberate policy of the regime.” It’s estimated that between three and four million Iraqis have fled the country under Saddam’s bloody reign.
Yet war opponents remain uninterested. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has repeatedly argued that an attack on a sovereign state would violate Catholic “just war” theory, but never questions the moral legitimacy of the regime. Likewise, a coalition of religious leaders bought a full-page ad in the New York Times to decry war plans, but forgot to mention Saddam’s assault on his own population.
Church leaders also claim that war would destabilize the region and incite more terrorist wrath against the United States and Britain. Says NCC General Secretary Bob Edgar: “A war against Iraq will make the U.S. less secure, not more secure.” The U.S.-British joint statement predicts that war “would produce new recruits for terror attacks.”
This is fear-mongering masquerading as prudence. The 1991 U.S.-led campaign against Iraq liberated Kuwait and temporarily crippled Saddam’s capacity for military mischief. The U.S. war in Afghanistan toppled a brutal government, eliminated a safe haven for al Qaeda, and was greeted with unbridled joy by those who suffered most under the Taliban — women and children. The best intelligence suggests that the campaign in Afghanistan has significantly frustrated Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network.
At a Pentagon briefing in December, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told a select group of religious leaders that Saddam’s ouster could encourage political freedoms in the region. “It won’t be Jeffersonian democracy,” Wolfowitz said, “but a reasonable level of democratic government would set an example for the rest of the Islamic world.” More importantly, President Bush and Prime Minister Blair both argue that defeating this despotic monster would send a timely message to other state sponsors of terrorism.
By contrast, an anti-war petition signed by 2,500 Anglican and Roman Catholic leaders — and delivered to 10 Downing Street — anticipates no benefits from regime change in Baghdad. “The way to peace does not lie through war but through the transformation of structures of injustice and of the politics of exclusion,” the document said. The U.S. Catholic Bishops have made a perfunctory call on Iraq to “cease its internal repression,” but said nothing about how that might happen with Saddam in power. Christian leaders in America and Britain who sermonize endlessly about “economic justice” are mostly mute about the demands of political justice when it comes to Iraq.
Finally, the anti-war alliance can’t resist making self-serving appeals to the Bible. Tony Campolo, a one-time spiritual counselor to President Clinton, derides what he sees as warmongering Christians. “I’m not sure we want to hear of a Jesus who says, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God.’” The NCC report condemns any dissent from its pacifist stance: “As disciples of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, we know this war is completely antithetical to his teachings.” In his first Christmas message as Archbishop, Rowan Williams compared the Bush-Blair war strategists to the wise men who inadvertently prompted Herod’s massacre of children in Bethlehem. They are poised, Williams said, “to create yet more havoc and suffering.”
One need not be a theologian to know when the Bible is being manipulated to serve a political agenda. There’s a strong Christian tradition about the obligations of secular rulers to restrain incorrigible evil. Martin Luther argued that “every lord and prince is bound to protect his people and to preserve the peace for them. That is his office; that is why he has the sword.” Karl Barth, writing to Christians in Britain, then under siege from Hitler’s Germany, agreed: “The State would lose all meaning and would be failing in its duty as an appointed minister of God … if it failed to defend the bounds between Right and Wrong by threat, and by the actual use, of the sword.” His contemporary, Reinhold Niebuhr, flogged American theologians for invoking Jesus’ command to “love thy neighbor” in order to justify U.S. inaction. “This form of pacifism is not only heretical when judged by the standards of the total gospel,” he wrote. “It is equally heretical when judged by the facts of human existence.”
The facts about Saddam Hussein — his ruthlessness, aggression against his neighbors, contempt for international law, and passion to acquire weapons of mass destruction — are plain enough. No faith is required to see such facts. But Christian leaders everywhere would do well to meditate on them as diligently as they do their Bibles.
— Joseph Loconte is the William E. Simon fellow in religion and a free society at the Heritage Foundation, where Nile Gardiner is a visiting fellow in Anglo-American security policy.