Special Report

Holier Than Obama

The National Council of Churches calls for unilateral nuclear disarmament -- by the U.S. of course.

By 9.29.09

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Potential nukes for an apocalyptic-minded and rabidly anti-American (not mention anti-Semitic) Iranian president do not much interest the National Council of Churches (NCC). So the NCC, whose board met in late September, is insisting that the U.S. unilaterally disarm, as an example to others.

According to the NCC, American nukes have "siphoned off untold billions" away from "more just" causes, "poisoned our air, our water, and our children," "produced toxic waste" and engendered "inordinate pride, much resented by other nations," serving to "degrade the status and esteem accorded to the U.S." by other nations.

Others might argue that the U.S. nuclear umbrella preserved Western Civilization, deterred world war, facilitated a growing global economy generating unprecedented wealth for countless millions across 6 decades, and deterred countless other less responsible regimes from contriving their own nukes. But since the NCC sees the world through a utopian and chronically anti-American lens, it cannot imagine the likely sinister consequences if U.S. predominance were replaced by likely alternatives.

The NCC board's anti-nuke stance is called "Nuclear Disarmament: The Time is Now," and barely registers a quibble about Iran or North Korea, since it is American nukes that are the most uniquely threatening to world peace. (Read my associate Jeff Walton's on-site account of the NCC board meeting here.)

At least a few on the NCC board tried to amend the 10-page NCC declaration by citing other nations' nukes as causes for concern. "People will get to paragraph 2 [the main anti-U.S. litany] and roll their eyes saying, 'there goes the NCC again,'" cautioned one Greek Orthodox board member. But a member of the NCC's Justice and Advocacy Commission countered: "You own your own stuff before you start pointing fingers at others." Virtually the entire board agreed with this version of sandbox justice, and the near exclusive focus on the U.S. as primary global nuclear villain remained.

"There's a sense that this had fallen off the agenda of the ecumenical movement," explained NCC General Secretary Michael Kinnamon about the NCC's renewed anti-nuke interest, not having issued a manifesto in over 20 years. During the 1980s, the NCC naturally joined the Soviet-supported nuclear freeze movement and condemned President Reagan's military build-up, especially his refusal to abandon the Strategic Defense Initiative, or missile shield. When Reagan refused to abandon missile defense at the 1986 Reykjavik summit with Gorbachev, the NCC predictably denounced Reagan for not accepting the Soviet chief's "compromise," which would have jettisoned missile defense altogether. According to the NCC then, Reagan's "Star Wars/SDI dream" was the "obstacle which dimmed the bright hopes for serious arms reduction." The NCC also nonsensically prophesied that missile defense would cost up to $2 trillion (in 1980s dollars), and insisted that many scientists doubted that missile defense was "technically achievable."

Ironically, the NCC is very concerned about the cost-benefit analysis for U.S. nuclear weapons, a preoccupation not typical towards other more expansive government programs. "Considering how many trillions of dollar we have spent on nuclear weapons over the last seven decades, and how little we have to show for it, these words are sadly prophetic," the NCC mourned, citing its own supposedly prescient declaration of 1951, which warned the U.S. would not inspire the world by "making its own security its chief end." By one count, the U.S. spent about $52 billion on nukes last year, compared to overall federal spending of nearly $3 trillion, and military spending of over $600 billion. Whatever their morality or utility, nukes are not expensive relative to other government spending, especially when compared to the conventional military forces required to replace them.

In truth, the NCC, which is virtually pacifist despite the Just War traditions of nearly all its member denominations, sees all U.S. defense efforts as wasteful and immoral. Nukes just make a more convenient target. Claiming that U.S. military spending, including nukes, played no role in defeating totalitarianism over the last 70 years and deterring even greater conflicts, is of course absurd. Even more ridiculous is the NCC's expectation that the U.S. will motivate North Korea, Iran and others to disarm by moral example. "We must rely on the diplomatic weight of the entire rest of the world coming down on them, peaceably, in order to induce change," the church bureaucrats suggested. Yet the NCC implores that its dreamy "commitment should not be dismissed merely as a knee-jerk 'liberal' reaction to the new of the day," but is actually "based on solid theological grounding, which goes back to the earliest years of the organization."

For very liberal religious groups like the NCC that aspire towards but rarely achieve deep political relevance, the anti-nuke manifesto may seem bracing. But there's little "theological grounding" in claims that tyrants and maniacs will disarm in response to moral example. Maybe the NCC, at least unconsciously, stopped pronouncing on nukes after the 1980s, at least until now, because its counsel for unilateral disarmament during the Cold War's final acts was so sweepingly rejected and discredited. Once the premier voice for American mainstream churches, the declining NCC, amid theological and political confusion, never recovered from its missteps of 25 years ago. Fortunately, American leadership, however flawed, has usually shown more "theological grounding" regarding national defense than has the NCC.

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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.