CHICAGO (Reuters) – Some U.S. religious leaders are stepping up pressure on Washington to end the nearly 3-year-old Iraq war. But the influence of those who oppose the conflict has been weak so far and the faith community, like U.S. public opinion, is divided.
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, the second-largest Protestant denomination in the land.
President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney are both Methodists, but leaders of the 11-million-member church say they have had no response from the White House.
Meanwhile the largest single U.S. Protestant body, the 18-million-strong Southern Baptist Convention, says Bush has “shown courage and leadership in his valiant opposition to terrorism” and deserves the “deepest gratitude and respect.”
Richard Land, president of the group’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, says that’s hardly surprising since large numbers of the 62 million-plus people who voted for Bush in the last election identified themselves as Southern Baptists.
According to a CNN exit poll, voters in 2004 who identified themselves as “white evangelical or born again” voted for Bush by a three-to-one margin.
It is a religious divide that has persisted since before the war began in March 2003. Polls then showed conservative evangelical U.S. Christians favored moving against Iraq and removing Saddam Hussein. But leaders of the Methodists, Lutherans, Catholics and many other denominations were vocal and unsuccessful in their opposition to the conflict.
A recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll found that 52 percent of Americans think the Iraq war wasn’t worthwhile. Forty-six percent said it was, and the rest had no opinion.
SOME HAVE INFLUENCE
There is evidence 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.
“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.
Bob Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, said those opposed to the war “have been frustrated by a lack of access to anyone in the White House who will listen.”
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. He described the atmosphere at the session as neither pessimistic nor optimistic but “determined.”
“I was on the U.S. House of Representatives floor in April of ’75 when we shut down the Vietnam war and it took 58,000 body bags to get the religious community really organized against Vietnam,” said Edgar, a United Methodist minister who served six terms as a Democratic House member from Pennsylvania.
But with Iraq, he said, a variety of religious leaders came out early with their opposition before the war started and have become the “chaplains of public opinion” through networks that are far more extensive than in the past.
One of those networks is FaithfulAmerica.org, an online advocacy venture formed by the 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, he 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.”
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,” they said.
The 66 million Catholics they lead comprise the largest single U.S. denomination.
OUT “SOONER THAN LATER”
U.S. troops should remain in Iraq “only as long as it takes for a responsible transition, leaving sooner rather than later,” the bishops said.
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 helped waster down public support for the war.
But that kind of opposition does give their followers a basis for shifting their opinions. In general, though, some of the opposition from church leaders has no doubt been muted by the belief that while the war may have been a mistake “we’ve got to make the best of it.”
Long-time 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, he said “the details of foreign policy are not the products of public opinion . It’s more of an elite-driven phenomenon.”
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