According to a report by Reuters, religious leaders on the left are ratcheting up their opposition to the foreign policy of the Bush administration. A statement of conscience calling the war "an unjust and immoral invasion and occupation of Iraq" has been signed by 99 bishops and more than 5,000 members of the United Methodist Church, which Reuters correctly describes as the second-largest Protestant denomination in the land. With eight million members, 5,000 signatures is underwhelming. President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney are both Methodists, but, reports Reuters, "leaders of the church say they have had no response from the White House."
"There is evidence that those standing behind the president have been listened to more than those who are not," said Kenneth Carder, a retired Methodist bishop who helped develop his church's anti-war statement. "He said there is discussion now of possible ways to change that by confronting the White House and members of Congress directly with the statement." Well, that should get their attention.
"I'm not sure whether [war] policy is being shaped by religious thought or whether religion is being used to support a policy derived out of political ideologies," said Carder, director of the Center for Excellence in Ministry at Duke University. Or maybe policy is being shaped by considerations of national interest and global strategy in a way that the shapers think is congruent with their religious convictions.
Bob Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, who was a six-term Democratic congressman, said those opposed to the war "have been frustrated by a lack of access to anyone in the White House who will listen." Reuters continues, "But he said there was an interfaith meeting in Washington recently to find ways to make the voices of faith organizations better heard among those who are planning protests and other activities in the coming months." So maybe they'll get that White House meeting after all. "Mr. President, we're here to explain why you are a war criminal and should be impeached." It's not clear where the conversation would go from there.
Mr. Edgar is also a Methodist minister and describes himself and other protestors as "chaplains of public opinion." One has to hope they have a higher sense of vocation than being ordained into the church of public opinion. FaithfulAmerica.org is an online advocacy venture formed by the National Council of Churches, whose director Vince Isner says religious opposition to the war has carried weight in ways that may go unrecognized. "One thing is that even if they're not moving Washington it is still important that faith groups stand up and be counted. It's important for people of faith to know where they stand regardless of the political climate, even when the politics may be against you," Isner said.
The message, Isner added, is that "any political group can justify a particular war but no group of any moral integrity can justify the concept of war as a means of settling a conflict." True, there was the turning back of the Muslims at the gates of Vienna in 1683, the American War of Independence, and World War II, but Mr. Isner is talking about settling conflicts in today's world.
Reuters reports that "the U.S. Catholic bishops have also turned up the pressure, recently calling for 'serious and civil discussions of alternatives that emphasize planning for a responsible transition in Iraq.'" The country cannot afford a "shrill and shallow debate" that reduces the options to "cut and run" or "stay the course," the bishops said. By "victory" in Iraq, the Bush administration says it means responsible transition. Almost nobody favors "cut and run," but one wonders what's wrong with "stay the course" if the stated goal is responsible transition. The bishops also say that U.S. troops should remain in Iraq "only as long as it takes for a responsible transition, leaving sooner rather than later." Sooner than what? Sooner than a responsible transition has been achieved? It is not clear.
Corwin Smidt, director of the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin College in Michigan, said it would be very hard to demonstrate that opposition from church leaders has contributed to reducing public support for the war. Political observer John Green, director of the Bliss Institute at the University of Akron and currently a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, believes the Catholic bishops' statement "was a real attempt to be helpful. . . . How much the administration listens to them we don't know."
But in general, Green said "the details of foreign policy are not the products of public opinion. It's more of an elite-driven phenomenon." It is hard to argue with that. Foreign policy is shaped by the policy wonks in the foreign affairs establishment who are in and out of government, and, chiefly, by the executive branch in conjunction with Congress, just as the Constitution stipulates.
To be sure, every citizen has the right to put in his two cents worth. And religious leaders are free to pronounce on this or that, even if this or that is not within their perceived field of competence. Whether in the form of protest or in offering generalized moral bromides, religious leaderships feel a need to "have a position" on what are described as the great moral issues of the time. Except in extraordinary circumstances, this is a feeling that should be firmly stifled. But for some, every circumstance is deemed extraordinary, if only because they are addressing it.
Bob Edgar of the NCC and others on the religious and political left are quite explicit in making the connection with Vietnam and hoping for a mass movement that will bring down George W. Bush the way Lyndon Johnson was brought down. The Reuters story, it would seem, is written in the service of that hope. It is not, I think, likely to happen. The moderately muddled statement of the Catholic bishops is closer to the reality of a nation that, despite misgivings, will stay the course toward a responsible transition that, it is hoped, will be achieved sooner rather than later.
When he isn't going on and on about the many-splendored raptures of gay sex, Andrew Sullivan is taking swipes at a Catholic Church that is no longer deserving of his devotion and raising alarums about the creeping "theocracy" championed by religious conservatives. Benedict's encyclical on love, issued last week, prompted the observation by Mr. Sullivan that what he and his boyfriend do in bed is pretty much the equivalent of what the pope says about conjugal relations. Sullivan's latest alarum about the religious right is occasioned by this report:
[Senator Sam]Brownback tells a story about a chaplain who challenged a group of senators to reconsider their conception of democracy. "How many constituents do you have?" the chaplain asked. The senators answered: 4 million, 9 million, 12 million. "May I suggest," the chaplain replied, "that you have only one constituent?"
Brownback pauses. That moment, he declares, changed his life. "This"being senator, running for president, waving the flag of a Christian nation"is about serving one constituent." He raises a hand and points above him.
Mr. Sullivan comments: "And so conservatism slowly dies in America, replaced by religious fanaticism."
In a younger life, Mr. Sullivan was something of a student of political philosophy, having studied with the distinguished British thinker Michael Oakeshott. In that school of conservative thought, a canonical text is Edmund Burke's address to the electors of Bristol, delivered on November 3, 1774. Senator Brownback is not Edmund Burke and the manner of expression is notably different, but see if you can discern a substantive difference in the point being made. Burke said:
Certainly, Gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a Representative, to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion high respect; their business unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and, above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But, his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you; to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the Law and the Constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your Representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.
Perhaps there was a pundit of the time who observed, "And so conservatism slowly dies, replaced by religious fanaticism."
In addition to which:
Archbishop Timothy Dolan of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee has this to say about the new book by Father Richard John Neuhaus:
"When it comes to 'Catholic matters,' Father Richard Neuhaus' thoughts matter a lot. He unfailingly challenges, enlightens, fascinates, inspires, humors, and occasionally even vexes me. And I would not miss reading a word he writes."
The book is Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth and is just out from Basic Books. It can be ordered from Amazon by clicking here.