Special Report

Religiously Opposing Missile Defense

The Religious Left's scorn for protections against missile attack have become gospel.

By 2.8.10

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The Heritage Foundation has produced a new film touting America's need for missile defense against terrorists and rogue states called "33 Minutes: Protecting America in the New Missile Age." A scoffing researcher at the liberal Center for American Progress told Politico that the film failed to show that "any such attack was remotely likely."

Leftist scorn for protections against missile attack date to the 1960s and, though interrupted by the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty banning nearly all defenses, angrily resurfaced when President Reagan proposed his "Star Wars" Strategic Defense Initiative in 1983. It was not until 2001 that President George W. Bush actually withdrew the U.S. from the ABM treaty.

Purely defensive weapons that destroy incoming missiles seemingly would appeal even to pacifists. But most opposition to missile defense is rooted in an almost religious faith in arms control as the solvent for all strategic threats. In fact, liberal religionists have often been the chief opponents of missile defense, oddly preferring complete vulnerability to even accidental missile launches.

Early in the Nixon Administration, liberal churchmen organized the National Religious Committee Opposing ABM. "We unequivocally oppose construction of the ABM," they declared in May 1969. "We call upon church and civic groups to examine thoroughly the moral issues involved in the ABM and then to make known their beliefs." Most prominent among the signers was legendary Christian Realist thinker Reinhold Niebuhr, who had turned leftward in the 1960s.

"I heartily subscribe to the statement you sent me opposing the ABM," he wrote a key religious organizer of the anti-ABM movement in 1969. He even agreed to chair the campaign. Senator Ted Kennedy's office actually asked and motivated religious groups specifically to mobilize against missile defense, with some success. The National Religious Committee Opposing ABM was unveiled with a New York City news conference in April 1969. Five Protestant bishops and two Roman Catholic auxiliary bishops were among the signers, as were Niebuhr and 19 other religious notables.

A New York Times report of the religious press conference observed that Americans by two to one told a pollster they supported missile defense. Missile defense has always been largely popular when Americans are polled. But Religious Left elites, in sync with secular elites who share their zealous faith in arms control, have always targeted missile defense for uniquely threatening their utopian vision of a weaponless world (or at least of a weaponless United States).

The anti-missile defense religious organizers of 1969 were sweeping in their vision: "We call upon he American people to respond in such a way that when men of the future look back of this era of human history they will say, 'The defeat of the ABM proposal was the beginning of a great breakthrough, the moment when a major world power demonstrated its willingness to begin a new quest for peace, and repented of the old race toward war.'"

Unsurprisingly, the National Council of Churches (NCC) enthusiastically joined the anti-ABM coalition, as did the Presbyterians and the United Methodists, who helped fund the lobby effort. Three United Methodist bishops were involved, as was the senior executive of the United Presbyterian Church. The NCC's resolution decried missile defense's lamentable "effect on the arms race and disarmament negotiations generally."

Of course, the Nixon administration virtually signed away any meaningful prospect for missile defense with the ABM treaty in 1972. President Reagan's "Star Wars" proposal unveiled in 1983 to research missile defense through the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) did not advocate withdrawing from the ABM but still enraged the religious and secular Left. The United Methodist Council of Bishops unanimously denounced Reagan's initiative. One prominent United Methodist ethicist who advised the bishops warned ominously that SDI could "prove a cover for a first strike." He also opined that opposing SDI "could become the number one social justice issue on the churches' agenda." Naturally he condemned Reagan for refusing to abandon missile defense research at the 1985 Reykjavik summit with Mikhail Gorbachev.

Predictably, the National Council of Churches (NCC) also denounced Reagan's refusal at Reykjavik. "At that moment of such hope and possibility," the NCC mourned, "the Strategic Defense Initiative…stood in the way," with President Reagan "unwilling to give up on his 'Star Wars'/SDI dream," making SDI the sad "obstacle which dimmed the bright hopes for serious arms reduction." The NCC hyperbolically estimated that a missile defense shield for America might cost $1 trillion, perhaps even twice that. And besides, the Soviets would simply build a "similar space-based military 'deterrent,'" the NCC assumed.

Actually, after the Soviet Union's collapse, some former Soviet officials confessed SDI's crucial role in persuading Soviet leaders they could not compete with the U.S. technologically in missile defense. But the Cold War's end also delayed U.S. movement on missile defense. Nuclear proliferation among rogue states reignited interest in the 1990s, and President George W. Bush promptly withdraw the U.S. from the ABM treaty and deployed an anti-missile defense in Alaska, with psychotic North Korea particularly in mind.

Evidently believing that defenses against rogue nuclear states, or even against accidental launches, are unneeded, the United Methodist bishops in 2001 quickly denounced Bush's plans for missile defense deployment: "We must join together to see that the untold billions of dollars proposed for a meaningless search for security through a national missile defense system are not once again taken from the mouths of children and the poor." The Methodist bishops and other liberal Mainliners direly warned of an angry Russian reaction to the ABM's treaty's cancellation, which of course did not happen, and of astronomical missile defense spending, which also did not occur. "Heavy emphasis on unproven anti-missile technology to counter a speculative future threat from a few small nations neglects other elements of a comprehensive non-proliferation strategy," surmised an ecumenical group of liberal religious lobbyists representing the United Methodist, Episcopal, Presbyterian (USA) and United Church of Christ denominations, plus the National Council of Churches and Evangelicals for Social Action.

Canada's declining liberal churches similarly denounced any deployment in of missile defense, under the pretext that the Bush Administration invited Canada's participation. The Canadian Council of Churches urged Prime Minister Paul Martin in 2004 to seek "binding controls over ballistic missiles as the most effective and practical means of working for the safety and protection of Canadians." As missile defense opponents have for decades, the Canadian prelates bewailed the "weaponization of space," as though the vacuum of outer space were more sacred than protecting earth-bound humans from nuclear terror.

The Obama Administration has controversially canceled missile defense deployments in Eastern Europe but supposedly will move forward on other anti-missile defenses. So far, the Religious Left has not renewed its 40-year sporadic campaign to keep Americans completely vulnerable to any missile attack. But, inevitably, it will speak again against any perceived threat to a supposedly far more important totem: the Religious Left's blind faith that arms control can eliminate all nuclear weapons.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.