Recently a letter to the editor I wrote was published in a Christian periodical. An article profiling National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice had irritated me sufficiently that I wrote to protest what I feared was a tacit baptizing of government policies. Probably that article could have been read in ways other than how it struck me, but having had my share of conversations with fellow Christians on the recent war, what I encountered in the magazine bore resemblance to a wider attitude: since we have some Christian people running things in this administration, the rest of us Christians should mostly assume the best. Even the recent war might just have been the Christian thing to do.
I have my doubts and so wrote the letter. Somewhat surprisingly, I soon began to hear from people, both acquaintances and strangers, who reacted with a kind of exhalation of relief. They were not alone in likewise doubting the wisdom of recent events. Indeed, some of us in evangelical circles, though in prayer for our leaders and grateful for the governing authorities God has set into place, nevertheless demur when asked to say unequivocally that our nation took the only moral path available.
Defending this is an uphill fight, however. On the very day I received a couple of encouraging emails in reaction to my letter, the news media got hold of a twenty-minute videotape showing Hussein-era atrocities against Iraqi citizens, including beheadings, the excision of tongues, and other horrors. Immediately we were again deluged with comments along the lines of, “See!? How could we have let that continue?” That evening a commentator on Fox News asked Congresswoman Katherine Harris, “How could any moral person doubt we did the right thing in helping those Iraqi people?” “Exactly so,” Ms. Harris beamed.
It is not news that Saddam Hussein was a terrible despot. And despite the mess that remains in Iraq, there can be no denying the world is better off without this dictator lounging around his palaces, plotting evil upon his bed like some shadowy figure from an Old Testament psalm. Even though we supported Hussein in his war against Iran, we’ve known for years that he was bad news. It reminds me of Dana Carvey’s spot-on Saturday Night Live impersonations of the first President Bush back in 1991. “Bush, goooood. Saddam, bad, bad, BAD!”
Even so, the Fox News talking head was on to something: morally minded people can be glad if the removal of Hussein spares Iraqis more brutality. But that’s not why we invaded. That rationale alone would never have sold this war to the American people, including most American Christians. We did not invade Iraq to help those people, we invaded to protect ourselves. The phantom weapons of mass destruction were not a threat to the Kurds, but to us. Tony Blair ominously hinted that Saddam had a missile that could hurt people not in Basra but in London. And the ostensible Al Qaeda links were not about terrorism that might happen to other people but about what had already happened to us.
The only administration in recent times that made human rights the linch-pin of its foreign policy was the Carter Administration. But that focus on human rights was not enough then to make Christians line up in huge numbers to vote for Mr. Carter in 1980. Instead the “religious right,” just then beginning to gel, tended to vote not for the man who wanted us to be concerned about others but for the one whose key campaign question was, “Are you better off now than four years ago?” So began the “Me Decade.”
But that attitude never ended. In the wake of 9/11 perhaps the focus was not so much on “me” as it was collectively on “us,” but the “us” was still the citizens of a certain 50 states. The sad fact is that our leaders could not have launched this war had it been only about others. But since that would not have worked, other, more personally threatening scenarios were presented–scenarios that appear to have been quite simply wrong but that are now downplayed in rather mendacious ways.
Those of us who wish to be moral, as Fox News would have us be, naturally fret over this. But it is also distressing that some are trying to make those of us who opposed the war appear callous toward the sufferings of others (as though that very suffering is what motivated everybody to begin with). But we Christians, of all people, need to think long and hard about what really brought about the current situation in order to parse matters ethically. Those who seem to think it was somehow un-Christian to oppose this war need to wonder about that attitude. Why was it that the Christians who pushed for patience, prudence, and peace were made to feel as though they were the ones advocating virtues at odds with the gospel?
In one of the many juicy quotes that he routinely dishes up in his newsletter Context, Martin Marty recently dug up an interview, conducted at Nuremberg, with Nazi Hermann Göring. Göring said that irrespective of whether you were talking about fascism, communism, or democracy, the formula for getting a nation willing to go to war is easy: convince the people they are under attack, denounce pacifists for their unpatriotic callousness toward the nation’s safety, and the rest will take care of itself. Those chilling words haunt me in these difficult times.