Newhouse News Service, Apr. 9, 2003
BY MARK O’KEEFE
It has been called organized religion’s most unified anti-war stance since the latter days of the Vietnam conflict.
But public opinion polls show the spiritual movement opposing war in Iraq has had little impact on churchgoers, much less on the American public, both of which overwhelmingly support both the U.S.-led invasion and President Bush.
When former President Jimmy Carter, a born-again Baptist, wrote in early March that religious leaders had “an almost universal conviction” that an invasion would be unjust, the statement seemed self-evident. Leaders of mainline Protestant denominations, including the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ and the United Methodist Church, opposed war, and the Roman Catholic Pope John Paul II worked passionately against it.
Largely overlooked in all this was the reality that the flocks didn’t agree with the shepherds. According to a February Gallup Poll, two of every three Americans who attend church at least once a week supported war.
Religious conservatives see this split as evidence that a sometimes quiet majority of regular churchgoers — even in moderate to liberal denominations — tilt right on many major political issues.
“The mainline churches have suffered a blow to their relevancy in America that will take them more than a generation to recover from,” said Rabbi Daniel Lapin, a conservative radio talk-show host from Mercer Island, Wash., who speaks frequently at Christian Coalition conferences.
But the Rev. Robert Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, could hardly disagree more. In his view, the council, representing 36 denominations, is playing a prophetic role — much as it did in the 1960s when it took a stand for civil rights.
“None of the Old Testament prophets had a majority,” said Edgar, a former Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania. “My position is that prophetic voices are always way out ahead of the congregation. Those willing to speak out should not expect automatic enthusiasm. They should understand pretty clearly that the rank and file take a little longer to focus and to follow.”
Bradley Watson, an associate professor of political science at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., likened the anti-war position of denomination leadership to the tip of an iceberg — readily apparent because it’s above water, but ultimately misleading.
“The great iceberg of popular opinion is in support of the war, even among churchgoers,” Watson said.
A nationwide survey March 13-16 by the Pew Research Center and the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life showed that 62 percent of Catholics and the same percentage of mainline Protestants support the war.
Luis Lugo, religion program director at the Pew Charitable Trusts in Philadelphia, called that “a significant gap” between church leaders and followers.
For years, other polls have shown mainline Protestant leaders to be significantly to the left of their members on the death penalty, affirmative action, defense spending and other issues. “Protestant church leaders ought to be concerned,” Lugo said. “That’s not a healthy long-term trend.”
But for the most part, church leaders seem more philosophical than worried.
A former head of the National Council of Churches, the Rev. M. William Howard Jr. of Newark, N.J., explained that church leaders have “an informed” and “critical assessment” of the war and the Bush administration’s justifications that church laity, relying on popular media, lacks.
While the religious right communicates to its audience through thousands of conservative radio stations, “mainline churches are completely out of that ballgame,” said Howard, pastor of Bethany Baptist Church, a largely African-American congregation.
Howard said African-Americans distrust Bush, and their opposition to the war reflects that. Nationally, only 36 percent of African-Americans support the invasion of Iraq, according to the Pew poll.
On the other hand, the Pew sample showed 77 percent of evangelical Christians supporting the war.
Those describing themselves as evangelical or born-again make up more than 40 percent of the American population, according to Gallup polls. Many of their churches are independent and nondenominational, meaning they have few leaders speaking for vast networks of congregations. Some Southern Baptist Convention leaders have spoken out in favor of the war, but most evangelical organizations have been relatively quiet on the issue.
Their war support could stem from an affinity for a president who speaks their language of redemption and rejects the anti-war rhetoric of his own Methodist denomination.
It may also reflect differences in interpretation of Bible passages. Mainline Protestant leaders cite Christ’s pleas for peace — “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” and “Blessed are the peacemakers” — in opposing the war. Evangelicals argue that those commands were intended for individuals, not the state, and that Christ spoke passionately about the responsibility to oppose evil.
This helps explain why the Bible describes Christ “rebuking hateful mobs, casting demons into the abyss and chasing religious charlatans out of a temple with a whip,” said Joseph Loconte, a fellow on religion and free society at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
Following that example, Christians should support a war against the evil of Saddam Hussein, Loconte and other evangelicals argue.
Among Catholics, disagreeing with the Vatican and American bishops is nothing new, said the Rev. Arthur Kennedy, executive director of the Washington-based United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“Look at the abortion issue,” Kennedy said. “American Catholics are basically the same as everyone else, even though the church is constantly making the case against abortion.”
But Jeffrey Marlett, assistant professor of religious studies at the College of Saint Rose, in Albany, N.Y., said the falling credibility of Catholic leadership is a factor in shaping opinions on the war.
“The church’s sex crisis is percolating in the background on this,” said Marlett, whose specialty is American Catholic history. “When the Vatican or the American bishops make statements on justice and peace, those words ring a little hollow now.”
In Albany, Marlett said, Catholic parishioners are walking out on sermons declaring the war unjust.
“If folks don’t like the message they’re hearing, they’ll move someplace else where they like it,” he said. “The interesting thing here, for whatever reason, is that peace isn’t selling well. It’s certainly not selling like it did in the 1960s.
“Religious folks have favorite brands, and the favorite brand at this point is in support of the war.”