Religious aggression?

Posted: Mar 27, 2003 12:00 AM
It is widely noticed that the faithful attending religious services are greatly vexed by the divide between religious counselors (the majority of them) and the counsel of their political leaders. We learn that Southern Baptist Convention leaders and some evangelical and Pentecostal leaders have rallied behind President Bush, but mainline Protestant leaders oppose him, and of course the pope has spoken repeatedly against his policy. Jewish leaders, The New York Times reports, are "deeply split."

One begins by acknowledging that political agendas have a way of crowding out theological questions, as with the Most Rev. Frank Griswold, who is the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church. His recent protest included the statement that "I'd like to be able to go somewhere in the world and not have to apologize for being from the United States." New York Episcopal Bishop (retired) Paul Moore has been criticizing America for years, inveighing against poverty, corporate greed, racism, nuclear arms, military spending and war, which is OK, but oughtn't to be thought uniquely American inventions.

Indeed, some clergy short-circuited such respect as they'd be thought ex officio to have by their categorical alienation from America. The writer Fred Barnes ended his piece in The Wall Street Journal about "pious denunciations" by noting Bishop Griswold's petition to meet with Mr. Bush so that he and other religious leaders might "share our perspectives with him." Barnes commented: "That would be a waste of time for Mr. Bush -- and an embarrassment to Episcopalians like me."

Such critics are not to be deliberated on, except if they happen to say something arresting or original, even as movie-star protesters can be ignored unless one of them comes up with an epiphany, in thought or language.

But this, of course, does not apply to Pope John Paul. He cannot be accused of blindsided anti-Americanism, so that the weight of his office can't be lightly discarded. Catholics correctly proceed knowing that even in matters of war and peace, the pope's particular judgments are questions less of morals than of prudence. We can proceed to deliberate his words confident that the pope's opposition to the war is not a criticism of American institutions. Rather, it is criticism of going to war in the current crisis.

On Monday, in a message to Catholic military chaplains gathered at the Vatican, the pope began by denouncing war in general, a position with which thoughtful citizens throughout the world are familiar and with which they are in sympathy. Engagement in a war whose purposes are colonialist or rawly exploitative is denounced with that special authority that attaches to religious condemnations, condemnations in the word of God.

But the pope's statement to the chaplains included a sentiment thus paraphrased in the Special Report: "Making it clear that his remarks concerned the present conflict, the pope also said that the only form of military action that could be considered legitimate was in defense against an aggression."

The qualifiers spring instantly to mind. Would war against Germany one day before Hitler invaded Poland have been justified? If so, then the prudential question becomes, How much time before the postulated aggression can war be approved? A month? A year?

The premises of President Bush, his Cabinet and the majority in Congress have been that Iraq has been accumulating weaponry intending more of such aggressions as have several times been committed by Saddam Hussein. Interesting hypothetical question: Suppose that by some nonexistent means, the country of Iraq could be absolutely sealed off, protecting all other countries from Iraqi aggression -- do we correctly assume that any war against the regime would be unholy?

We come upon, moreover, the implications of democratic governance. The late Gen. Vernon Walters, former deputy director of the CIA, reminded an interviewer that "no democracy has ever committed an act of aggression." Would Walters' Law be repealed by the current war?

The word "democratic" is regularly used as if it had alchemical powers, wherefor one purpose of our Iraqi venture is to bring democracy to it. We tend to spare ourselves any retrospective thought to what then, under democracy, might happen. You can get the paralysis of modern Venezuela and the Philippines. The ethnocentrism of France. A United States sponsoring an actual war ...

On the one point all religious leaders are indisputably correct, that prayer is at all times justified. Do not omit Bishop Griswold from such prayers for divine intercession.