God's Politics

A new poll suggests that fully 60 percent of white evangelical voters now oppose sending more troops to Iraq. That can be nothing but good news for those who seek to take seriously the teachings of Jesus (though one wonders about the remaining 40 percent). Why the sudden turnabout – especially since white evangelicals overwhelmingly supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the progenitor of the Iraq deception, George W. Bush, during the presidential election the following year?

Anyone who seeks to apply generalizations to the internally diverse movement that is American evangelicalism will come away frustrated. Still, it may be instructive to speculate on this dramatic change of heart.

We should point out, first of all, that white evangelicals are not alone in their disaffection with the war and, more generally, with the present administration. Some of this can be chalked up to the predictable cycle of presidential politics; most presidents encounter a dip in popularity midway through their second terms. Besides, who isn’t beginning to tire of this administration’s litany of deceptions and prevarications?

Still, the disillusionment with the war, according to this same survey, is slightly more pervasive among white evangelicals than it is even among self-described conservatives (52 percent). This suggests that there may finally be an awakening of conscience among American evangelicals.

It’s about time. For centuries Christians have talked about the phenomenon of a “just war,” and various criteria have been established to determine whether or not military action is morally justified. Is it a defensive war, for instance? Is the deployment of military forces the last resort? Has every alternative been exhausted? Is the use of force roughly proportional to the (supposed) provocation? Have provisions been taken, as much as possible, to protect civilians from collateral damage?

No one has yet persuaded me that the invasion of Iraq meets any of these criteria.

The other factor that may explain this shift in attitudes about the war may be wishful thinking on my part, but I’d like to believe that evangelicals are reconsidering what it means to be truly “pro-life.” It’s one thing to construct a moral case against abortion (a case with which I generally sympathize), but if those scruples have no bearing on your attitudes toward war or capital punishment or torture, then it amounts to little more than, to use St. Paul’s phrase, “a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.”

(In the course of writing “Thy Kingdom Come,” I asked eight Religious Right groups to send me a copy of their organization’s position on the use of torture. Only two responded, and both supported the Bush administration’s policies on torture!)

At the very least, these survey results suggest that the stranglehold that leaders of the Religious Right have held over America’s evangelicals is beginning to loosen. As evangelicals continue to think more critically, and to reclaim their birthright as people of the Book, they are increasingly calling into question the “orthodoxies” of the Religious Right – the opposition to environmental protection, the (at least tacit) support for torture, and the morality of the war in Iraq.

That sounds like good news to me.

Randall Balmer, an Episcopal priest, is professor of American religious history at Barnard College, Columbia University, a visiting professor at Yale Divinity School, and the author, most recently, of Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America: An Evangelical’s Lament (Basic Books). He is also a member of the Red Letter Christians.

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