American Religion and the Iraq War

Considering the un-peaceful tendencies in the Christian religion is it logical for a Christian to work for a peaceful future? The belief in the apocalyptic end of the world seems to work in the other direction. Many American Christians supported the Iraq War and justified their support by citing the Book of Revelation. Were they obeying the internal logic of the Christian religion, or were they mistaken? Considering the fact that Christians outside of the United States were not so supportive it’s likely they were mistaken, but we can’t say for sure until we study it further. You might think this question has already been answered. After all, the Iraq War was a disaster, and therefore a mistake. But the morality of Christian support for the war should not hinge on whether the war was a success. It should hinge on whether Christian support for the war was consistent with Christian teachings.

In the process of writing this article I’ve learned that Christian teachings are not really central to the problem. If the problem were Christian error we might be able to blame it on believers’ mistaken interpretations of scripture, in particular, the Book of Revelation. Then it would make sense to study those scriptures. But now I think the problem is worse than that. To illustrate I’ll use surveys of Christian attitudes about the war.

The first study is a combination of Gallup surveys conducted in 2005 and early 2006, written up by Frank Newport and published in March of 2006 on Gallup.com. (http://www.gallup.com/poll/21937/protestants-frequent-churchgoers-most-supportive-iraq-war.aspx). The second study is written by Joseph L. Cumming and Based on a 2003 Survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (http://faith.yale.edu/sites/default/files/the_iraq_war_and_christian_faith.pdf)

The Statistics

In the first analysis American religion was divided into categories: Protestant, other Christian, Catholic, other religion, and no religion.  The initial results indicate a difference between denominations in support for the war. The least supportive was the category of other religion and no religion (42% and 38% respectively). At the top of the scale were Protestants and other Christian (55% and 53% respectively). Catholics were less likely than protestants and other Christians to support the war, but only slightly (48%). (The results in graph-form can be found on the Gallup website. Keep in mind that Gallup measured the ‘war is a mistake’ question, so higher numbers on the graphs indicate less support for the war and lower numbers indicate more support for the war.)

At first glance this might seem to imply something negative about religion in general and about Protestantism in particular. But we should be so lucky. When all of the results are considered it gradually becomes clear that we’ve been giving religion far too much credit. This suspicion first arises with the significant relationship between religious identification and party identification. Protestants were most likely to be Republicans and Republicans were most likely to support the war. Likewise, the tendency for Catholics to be less supportive of the war could be explained by the fact that a higher percentage of Catholics are Democrats. And finally, those with no religion were significantly less likely to be Republican and more likely to be independents than the general American population. In short, Democrats in each group were highly likely to believe the war was a mistake, Republicans were the least likely, and independents were in the middle.

Frequency of church attendance was also a significant factor. Here the biggest difference was between those who attend church seldom or never and those who attend monthly or more often (38% and 56% respectively). Other Christians who attend church more often were less supportive of the war however.

Still, when you consider that those who attend church more often are more likely to be Republican, party affiliation remains the most influential factor. When the three major partisan groups: Republican, independent, and Democrat, are graphed according to church attendance and the belief that the war was a mistake Democrats are highly likely to say the war was a mistake regardless of church attendance, Republicans are highly unlikely to say the war was a mistake, and independents are somewhere in the middle. A modest relationship remains within Republican and independent groups between church attendance and views on the war, but no strong pattern appears related to attendance among Democrats.

The Influence of Christianity on Moral Decision-Making

This survey was conducted March 13-16, 2003, by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life: Joseph L. Cumming, The Iraq War and Christian Faith, April 20, 2004, Based on a 2003 Survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life

The guiding premise of this study was not supported by the facts. The premise was that decisions about war are profoundly moral decisions, and given Christianity’s ‘just war’ theory which limits the circumstances under which a country is justified in going to war, Christian decision-making about war should be shaped by Christian faith. The results again indicate that secular influences predominate. Political convictions seem to be changing Christian beliefs rather than the other way around.

In the week before the U.S. commenced hostilities in Iraq, only 10% of Americans considered their religious beliefs to be the most important influence in shaping their attitudes about the war. Only one third reported that religious leaders had had at least some influence on their views, and only 11% considered religious leaders to have been highly influential. However 53% said friends and family influenced their views on the war and 43% said political commentators influenced them.  Just before the war Americans favored military action by a nearly 2:1 ratio, despite the fact that high-ranking Christian religious leaders had spoken out publicly about the moral implications of the proposed war. So what happened?

One response might be to hold the local clergy responsible. Only 14% of them took an anti-war position, seven per cent were publicly in favor of the war, and 75% took no position or did not speak about the war at all. But appearances may be deceiving. Researcher Ralph Premdas attributes the problem to ‘inter-communal antipathies’ present in society at large and reflected in the attitudes of churches and their adherents. He argues that clergy and believers are trapped within the ‘claims of their own ethnic or cultural community’, and he draws the conclusion that American isolation has robbed Christian decision-makers of the full benefit of their faith in making important decisions.

“…it is only through a multinational, multiethnic universal church that the many-colored wisdom of God can be adequately known, and it is only together with all the saints (from all nations and all ages) that we may fully grasp the multidimensional love of Christ. That is, if we wish to consider these questions in an authentically Christian way, then we must listen to the voices of believers in Christ from other nations—especially believers in the Middle East and in other Islamic nations.”

Premdas provides a hopeful ending to a disturbing study. Unfortunately American Christianity has always been conjoined with American politics. However I have found an encouraging answer for my question about whether it makes sense for a Christian believer to promote peace. Christian support for the Iraq War had very little to do with the Christian religion.  The bad news would be that the United States is a ship without a rudder.

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