For a born-again Southern Baptist, Jimmy Carter might make a terrific pope, what with his knack for reporting to us what's on the mind of the Almighty these days. We may yet bestow on our ex-president a miter and a moniker -- James Earl I.
It happens that the present Roman pope, a very great saint, is aligned with His Holiness James over the desirability of peace in Iraq. A large number of Christian leaders are so aligned.
Like James Earl I, speaking urbi et orbe from the New York Times Op-Ed page this past Sunday, and like President Bush, who at his televised press conference said, "Our goal is peace," the preponderance of U.S. Christians have no wish for war.
Naturally, in that rigorous way he perfected after leaving the White House, Carter can't resist driving his studding nails deeper than anyone else's. Thus, he tells the Times' readers that Bush's "increasingly unilateral and domineering policies have brought international trust in our country to its lowest level"; the actions we contemplate in Iraq are "almost unprecedented"; we seek "to establish a Pax Americana in the region," while "undermining the United Nations."
Further, Carter knows that attacking "relatively defenseless" Iraqis doesn't qualify, theologically speaking, as "just war." He acknowledges war as a "final option" without noting that this has been Bush's position from the first.
Carter's moral clarity, however mistakenly applied, does have a lilt to it after the dissonant cynicism of the French, Germans and Russians. These oppose war, not to affirm religious principle but, seemingly, just to take the Americans down a peg. (One suspects that postwar surprises lie ahead for Perfidious France and the rest.)
Nevertheless, it would be good if we understood that orthodox theology isn't a matter of waiting for Jimmy Carter to descend from Sinai, with smoking-hot tablets under both arms. Michael Novak, even a better theologian than Pope Jimmy (and, to boot, a former speechwriter for George McGovern), recently sorted out the distinctions in a speech.
The war now looming, Novak said, "comes under traditional just-war doctrine" as "a lawful conclusion to the just war fought and swiftly won in February 1991." Meanwhile, another war has begun. Americans were its victims on Sept. 11, 2001. Is Saddam implicated? Given his history and methods, and "his recognized contempt for international law," his disposition to aid international terrorists must be reckoned as large. "Let us hope that Saddam Hussein as a last resort decides to obey his solemn obligations under the negotiated peace of 1991 ... In that case, there will be no war." And if he does not? If he unleashes biological or chemical havoc? Michael Novak wouldn't care to be the American president who took at face value the complaisant assurances of Saddam.
It becomes clearer and clearer every day that the age in which we live is changing beyond recognition -- and not just because of what Novak calls the "asymmetrical warfare" waged by stateless terrorists against innocent civilians. "As our case is new," Abraham Lincoln urged, at another critical juncture, "so we must think anew and act anew." Carter's bromides in no way advance or enhance discussion about that case. There is an unattractive dogmatism to his preachments on Iraq -- as if the man delivering them were waiting for us gratefully to tug at our forelocks or genuflect.
The chief effect of such remarks is to make many Americans grateful that the man now running the White House isn't Jimmy Carter but instead is George W. Bush, who at the press conference showed his grasp and appreciation of all that is presently at stake.
"The risk," he said, "of doing nothing, the risk of hoping that Saddam Hussein changes his mind and becomes a gentle soul, the risk that somehow that inaction will make the world safer is a risk I'm not willing to take for the American people."
Now there's a commander in chief for you.