October 30, 2004
The evangelical religious left and BushBy James Arlandson
Glen H. Stassen is Lewis B. Smedes professor of Christian ethics at Fuller seminary, one of the largest evangelical seminaries in the nation. Recently, he has sought the signatures of other evangelical professors for a statement condemning the alleged rhetoric of 'theology of war,' 'the righteous empire,' and America's 'mission' and 'divine appointment' to 'rid the world of evil.'
Even though Stassen and others like to believe that they are the ones who rise above politics to protect the pure message of the gospel, it is not difficult to understand his religious—ideological perspective in an article he wrote that says abortions have increased under Bush's domestic and economic policies. He opposes the President. However, his article has been thoroughly refuted on the ground that it plays fast and loose with the facts.
In the same way as his abortion article, Stassen's statement against Bush plays fast and loose with the facts because it digests tired and groundless innuendos that have circulated for three and a half years now.
Before critiquing the letter and the statement, it must be said that I have no intention of questioning the character and sincerity of Stassen and the other signatories. However, in four steps I must challenge the content of the letter and statement, which is morally confused and politically misinformed and na�ve: step one, the interview in Ekklesia's website; step two, the letter to Stassen's colleagues requesting their signatures; step three, the preamble of the statement; and step four, the five—point confession that lays out Stassen's concerns.
The confusion begins in Stassen's interview in Ekklesia's website, the first step.
We are all sinners equally, so who are to judge?
Stassen is quoted, as follows:
'For instance, in Bush's 2002 State of the Union Address the president labeled Iran, Iraq and North Korea the 'axis of evil,' Stassen said.
'Calling the three nations the 'axis of evil' and refusing to acknowledge any errors that he has made, that sets up a dichotomy between righteous United States and unrighteous 'axis of evil,' Stassen said. '. . . It leads to a crusade in which Christians think the Christian thing to do is support war—making against an allegedly unrighteous enemy.'
Stassen's confusion can best be summarized in this simple, but unwise logic:
(1) Anyone who is a sinner is disqualified from setting up a dichotomy of righteous and unrighteous.
No one can doubt premise (2)—not even Bush doubts that. He has admitted many times that he is a sinner. The problem lies in premise (1), but where exactly?
Stassen fails to consider a necessary dichotomy between our sinfulness as humans before a righteous God and our God—given ability to judge people and nations as good or evil, which the Bible gives us permission to do, as seen in the prophets. Per contra, he seems to believe, for example, that because a criminal court judge is a sinner (as we all are, theologically speaking), she is not allowed to call a serial killer 'evil' or a mafia gang 'an axis of evil.' This confuses our standing before a righteous God with our standing in society, where evil plays out differently and on different levels.
It is simply beyond reason to assert that North Korea is not an evil nation that is starving its people to death on a genocidal scale. It is beyond reason to assert that Saddam was not a miniature Hitler, who was evil incarnate. This may come as a shock to Stassen, but it is empirically verifiable that the US—though far from a sinless and perfect Utopia—does not practice the same level of evil as Iran (a high—level cleric said a nuclear weapon should be used against Israel ) and North Korea do, or as Iraq under Saddam did.
Due to this empirical verifiability, George Bush is justified, therefore, to call these three nations an Axis of Evil, minus Iraq now.
We now move to the letter requesting the signatures of Stassen's colleagues, the second step.
The 'theology of war' says the US is on a 'messianic crusade.'
. . . As we listen to the rhetoric coming from the highest levels of the American government, we hear more and more a 'theology of war' that sets the US on a messianic crusade, while wrapping itself in a Christian identification . . . .
One problem with Stassen's assessment is that he does not cite any source that shows who in the 'highest level of the American government' has ever advocated a 'theology of war' or 'a messianic crusade.' It is one thing for Christians on television to use inflated language (and I do not hear it very often on that medium), but it is quite another for the Administration to do so. Evidence needs to be provided.
This is George Bush's website where his speeches can be read online, and I can find no such rhetoric that grows 'more and more.' Perhaps Stassen has too readily accepted as facts groundless assertions against the President.
Besides, FDR used 'God talk' explicitly. In his address to Congress one day after Pearl Harbor, he said that 'the American people, in their righteous might, will win through to absolute victory . . . the inevitable triumph. So help us God.' And in his radio address later that day, he used the words 'sacred duty' and claimed that 'all of [the human race] are praying for us. For in representing our cause, we represent theirs as well—our hope and their hope for liberty under God.'
Moreover, on Jan. 6, 1942, FDR in his War Address before Congress asserted the following, in a remarkable parallel of the struggle in which the current President believes we are now engaged:
. . . [V]ictory for us means victory for religion. And they [the Axis] could not tolerate that. The world is too small to provide adequate living room [cf. lebensraum] for both Hitler and God. In proof of that, the Nazis have now announced their plan for enforcing their new German pagan religion all over the world, the plan by which the Holy Bible and the Cross of Mercy would be replaced by Mein Kampf and the swastika and the naked sword.
At the end of the speech, FDR uses the word 'evils' and quotes from the Bible:
. . . We are fighting to cleanse the world of ancient evils, ancient ills.
Our enemies are guided by brutal cynicism, by unholy contempt for the human race. We are guided by a faith which goes back through all the years to the first chapter of the Book of Genesis—'God created man in his own image.'
Clearly, then, FDR believed that American might was righteous compared to the might of the Axis Powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan, and he believed that the American cause represented freedom under God and a victory for true religion in the Holy Bible and against ancient pagan evils. It is evident that FDR is wrapping himself up in 'Christian identification' (Stassen's words) as he seeks to cleanse the world of ancient evils (cf. Stassen's 'rid the world of evils').
Therefore, why cannot Bush believe that American might is equally righteous and representative of freedom under God, which now opposes a second—generation Axis of Religious Evildoers? In comparison to FDR, Bush has played down his 'God talk,' even though it is clear to some of us that the Islamofascists would like to enforce their religion all over the world, just as FDR claimed the Nazis were attempting to do.
Here is Stassen's logic absurdly applied to FDR:
(4) Anyone who is a sinner is disqualified from setting up a dichotomy of righteous and unrighteous.
Stassen's father, Harold Stassen, served under FDR, but it seems Stassen in his statement may have overlooked FDR's 'messianic campaign,' though I do not believe Stassen's words are accurate. We are, however, precisely in a struggle against religious evil as our fathers' generation was, and Bush is morally right to point that out, as FDR was morally right.
No one can rid the world of evil permanently and forever; only the Second Coming can do that. However, Tolkien points out in one of his many his comments on his trilogy that each generation must battle its own Sauron and Morder, and the Islamofascists have become ours. Why cannot the left see that?
We may now analyze the preamble of the statement itself, the third step.
The President and his supporters seem aggressive, blind, fearful, resentful, unintelligent and unrestrained.
. . . Does Christian 'realism' mean resigning ourselves to an endless future of 'pre—emptive wars'? Does it mean turning a blind eye to torture and massive civilian casualties? Does it mean acting out of fear and resentment rather than intelligence and restraint?
The adjectives above are either found or implied in this quotation, and Stassen's concern is that the President and his supporters blindly (presumably not maliciously) want or endorse an 'endless future of 'pre—emptive' wars,' and 'torture and massive civilian casualties.'
The US has engaged in pre—emptive wars for decades now, as it battled communism in Korea and Vietnam. The rationale was and is sound. It is better to fight communism abroad than to fight it closer to home. Stassen is entitled to his perceptions about massive civilian casualties and the Administration's emotions and intelligence, but his perceptions are inaccurate, as the rest of this article points out, especially compared to Saddam's millions of victims.
Religious language is being co—opted for militarism and nationalism.
* A 'theology of war' is emanating from the highest circles of American government.
Stassen does not provide any evidence for such language, and no one can refute the absence of evidence. Here is the link to Vice President Cheney's website where his speeches are found, and if Stassen can find where co—opting of religious language for nationalism and militarism is employed with 'growing frequency,' then he should provide some. Moreover, as we already noted, by comparison with FDR, the President and Vice President have been careful to avoid elaborate 'God talk' in their speeches. Stassen is entitled to his perceptions, but they should be founded on facts that he provides for us, not on impressions circulating around the media.
'The danger today is political idolatry exacerbated by the politics of fear.'
It is unclear what 'political idolatry' is unless it refers to Bush doing and saying anything to stay in power. But Bush shows remarkable restraint in his re—election campaign. He has said, in effect, that he understands why people oppose the Iraq War, and voters will decide on that in November. In his words '[t]he danger today,' Stassen's implies that Bush is more dangerous than the terrorists. Stassen must live in another world, a pre—9/11 world, where the world is still cozy and safe. This is the world where Michael Moore lives, who says terrorism is no threat to this nation. Stassen must desire peace so much that he cannot see the wolves standing just beyond the light of campfire which symbolizes the US—another image of light for America.
We can turn now to the five—point confession, the fourth and final step of our analysis.
1. The Administration misapplied Biblical language.
We do not need to cite the statement because we can concede that Biblical language is always difficult to apply in politics, and Bush did use language that applies only to Christ.
However, the President could have used another verse with the theme of light, such as President Reagan's favorite: the US is a 'shining city on a hill' (adapted from Matt 5:14). But it seems Stassen would object even to this image, since America is as unrighteous as other nations are, such as North Korea or Iraq under Saddam.
Yet, in the spirit of FDR, some of us believe that were it not for the US in the past sixty or so years, the world would have spiraled downward into the depths of evil and human misery. Nazism and Soviet and Chinese communism are responsible for millions upon millions of deaths, and the US withstood them. On balance, the US is a force for good in this world, much more than a force for evil; it is a beacon of light in the darkness, and that is empirically verifiable.
2. Christians should have a strong presumption against war.
The second point is true as far as it goes, not only for Christians, but for anyone, whether religious or secular. No one wants war. However, Stassen goes on to politicize his admirable wish for peace, not war.
. . . We are committed to international cooperation rather than unilateral policies.
We reject the false teaching that a war on terrorism takes precedence over ethical and legal norms. Some things ought never be done —— torture, the deliberate bombing of civilians, the use of indiscriminate weapons of mass destruction —— regardless of the consequences.
This is the most inaccurate and therefore the most egregious misrepresentation of Bush's position so far. We take the clauses one at a time.
Bush did not act unilaterally. That is an old canard from the left that must die once and for all, simply because it has no basis in fact. Stassen seems to believe that Great Britain, Italy, Poland and thirty—plus other nations do not count in the coalition that is rebuilding Iraq as the nations have rebuilt and are rebuilding Afghanistan, successfully, to judge from the free elections there. That is what Bush is trying to do in Iraq.
In January 2003 Bush meets with Prime Minister Berlusconi a few months before the Iraq War to seek his help and counsel.
On February 5, 2003, here, Secretary of State Powell addresses the UN.
In March 2003, the President consults with Tony Blair, Jose Anzar, former Prime Minister of Spain, and Prime Minister Barroso, the Azores, Portugal.
The President has appeared before the UN on three different occasions, one in September, 2002, where he wins unanimous support from the Security Council and its Resolution 1441, which says Iraq 'will face serious consequences as a result of its continual violations of its obligation'; the second appearance takes place in September, 2003 and results in Resolution 1511, which recognizes the new Iraqi interim government; and the third appearance occurs in September, 2004, when he asks for support of democratic reforms in Iraq.
We may disagree over the details of the Administration's policies, but Bush did not act unilaterally or without consultation or cooperation, merely because France and Germany and Russia did not go along with Bush's righteous cause. Besides, evidence has surfaced that France and other nations benefited from the Oil—for—Food program. Maybe that's why they did not cooperate. Stassen's statement does not mention this economic injustice that starved children.
This brief and selective timeline demonstrates that Bush did not 'go it alone' as the rumors have it in the media, which Stassen picked up on and incorporated into his statement.
Next, the insinuation that the US's war on terrorism has taken precedence over 'ethical and legal norms' apparently comes from the belief that the US's war in Iraq is illegal, and the Patriot Act overreaches—though Stassen is vague on this assertion. The illegality of the Iraq War has been answered by the previous links, and the Patriot Act's provisions have been in place against drug lords for a long time. The Act merely keeps pace with technology, but here is a rundown of the changes that are being contemplated, if any. This shows the Administration is trying to get things right.
'Some things ought never to be done—torture, the deliberate bombing of civilians' . . . .
This is confusion of the most serious kind. Does Stassen seriously believe that Bush endorses torture? No one can defend the military or the CIA in all instances, but the prison guards of Abu Ghraib are rightly being prosecuted. Also, does Stassen seriously believe that the military and the Commander in Chief deliberately bomb civilians—deliberately? We have spent billions to develop smart bombs precisely because we do not want to bomb civilians.
. . . 'the use of indiscriminate weapons of mass destruction'? . . .
Who has used weapons of mass destruction at all—not to mention indiscriminately? Stassen has lost all proportion and accuracy, if I understand him correctly.
3, 4, 5. We are all sinners, so who are we to judge?
Stassen's third, fourth, and fifth points can be combined since they are repetitive. Again, he believes that because we are all sinners, we have no right to judge, and he use this famous imagery in the Bible: we should pull out the beam in our own eyes before we pull out the splinter in our adversaries' eyes—which in Stassen's usage oddly implies that the US and Bush have beams in their eyes, whereas the Axis of Evil has only splinters in theirs. We have already challenged this moral confusion in the two syllogisms and our commentary on them, above. Saddam is far more evil than Bush; North Korea is far more evil than the US, just as Hitler was far more evil than FDR, and Nazi Germany was far more evil than the US at that time. Those are empirical facts.
Besides Stassen's confusion about everyone being equally evil socially and politically, this paragraph can be analyzed briefly (under his fourth point):
We reject the false teaching that any human being can be defined as outside the law's protection. We reject the demonization of perceived enemies, which only paves the way to abuse; and we reject the mistreatment of prisoners, regardless of supposed benefits to their captors.
Apparently, this refers again to the Abu Ghraib abuse and to the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. If so, this is a straw man. No one is demonizing 'perceived enemies' (as opposed to 'objectively real' enemies?), and the guards at Abu Ghraib are being prosecuted. The prisoners of war in Guantanamo Bay used to shoot at or kill American soldiers, and they are being treated accordingly under the Geneva Convention. If Stassen knows specifically of any abuse, he should immediately report his hard evidence to the media, and we shall all condemn it.
And we can analyze this excerpt (under his fifth point):
. . . We reject the false teaching that those who are not for our nation politically are against it or that those who fundamentally question American policies must be with the "evil—doers" . . . .
This is a distortion. When Bush said that nations should stand with the civilized world or stand with the terrorists, he was addressing foreign governments who are harboring and abetting terrorists. Here are his words on Oct 6, 2001, in his radio address, which should be compared with Stassen's misinterpretation of them:
Today I want to update Americans on our global campaign against terror. The United States is presenting a clear choice to every nation: Stand with the civilized world, or stand with the terrorists. And for those nations that stand with the terrorists, there will be a heavy price.
Thus, he was not speaking to free nations or citizens who may politically question his foreign policy, but to rogue regimes, and his other similar declarations say the same thing.
How far do Stassen's misrepresentations have to go before he realizes he is wrong?
Blending theology and politics from a religious left's perspective every bit as much as the religious right admittedly blends theology and politics, Stassen nonetheless believes that he is upholding moral purity by rising above politics. But his statement is as political as it gets—but based on groundless and unspecific interpretations and impressions. His statement is therefore really a (mis)statement.
It is no coincidence, politically speaking, that Stassen's statement appears within days of the election on Nov. 2. He is expressly attempting to influence the elections and defeat George Bush. How political can one get?
The religious left can be as partisan as the religious right, except the right is open about it, or at least the right has been more openly accused of it.
Jim Arlandson (PhD) teaches introductory philosophy and world religions at a college in southern California. He has published a book, Women, Class and Society in Early Christianity (Hendrickson, 1997)