The Religious Left's Moment

Liberal and mainstream religious groups are becoming an increasingly visible and vital part of the antiwar movement.

BY: Rebecca Phillips


This fall, after major antiwar rallies in New York and Washington, it was movie stars like Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn, and Martin Sheen who made headlines and got camera time for their speeches and participation. But since then the face of antiwar activism has taken on a humbler, older, and less glamorous look: that of United Methodist Bishop Melvin Talbert.

Talbert, a balding, bespectacled African-American bishop who is past president of the National Council of Churches, the organization of mainline Protestant and Orthodox Christians, appears in a new antiwar television ad that began running late January on CNN and FOX stations in New York and Washington. In the 30-second spot, sponsored by the NCC, and produced by Win Without War--an antiwar coalition of 32 national groups, from the NAACP to the National Organization of Women--

Talbert says

that invasion of Iraq "violates God's law and the teachings of Jesus Christ."

Talbert's presence in the ad campaign is symbolic of an antiwar movement that is becoming increasingly couched in religious terms.

"Religion is becoming the most important social base of opposition to the Bush race into war," said Rabbi Arthur Waskow, a prominent Jewish antiwar activist and head of The Shalom Center, a Jewish group based in Philadelphia.

In the past few months, liberal and mainstream religious groups have stepped up efforts to protest potential war with Iraq and have become an increasingly visible--and vital--part of the antiwar movement. In addition to the television ad featuring Bishop Talbert, the National Council of Churches and its current leader, the Rev. Bob Edgar, have led a major campaign to sway public and international opinion against the Bush administration's Iraq policies, through a trip to Iraq in January and a series of meetings with world leaders, including German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Meanwhile, many other Christian groups, several Jewish groups, and other religiously affiliated peace groups have been organizing against the war. This visibility is making opposition to the war the most successful mass movement for the religious left in years.

Religious groups will play a major role in this coming weekend's antiwar activities. Special antiwar marches and rallies are being organized in close to 300 cities throughout the country, with especially large events occurring in New York on February 15 and San Francisco on February 16. The events will have large religious contingents, from Jewish and Christian groups to the Buddhist Peace Fellowship.

Of the 32 members of the Win Without War coalition, 12 are religious groups, including several mainline Protestant denominations like the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, Catholic groups, the Unitarian Universalist Association, and the American Friends Service Committee.

The affiliation with religious groups "brings a sense of legitimacy to the antiwar activists. They can show people that they're not just Stalinists and Marxists," as they are sometimes perceived, said Rhys Williams, professor and department head in the Department of Sociology at the University of Cincinnati. He said, with the involvement of religious groups, Americans can recognize antiwar activists as "a favorite aunt or Ned Flanders."

Religion is "one of the main driving forces in the [anti-war] movement," said Robert Benford, professor and chair of the department of sociology, Southern Illinois University Carbondale, who specializes in peace movements.

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