Special Report

Anti-War Despair

Unlike their Vietnam-era predecessors, today's Religious Left has lost faith in both God and country.

By 8.31.07

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The modern anti-war Religious Left wants to pattern itself after its heroes of the 1960s/1970s anti-Vietnam War struggles. William Sloane Coffin, the Berrigan Brothers and Martin Luther King, Jr. all articulated specifically Christian arguments against U.S. involvement in Indochina. Their anti-war arguments have not aged well, given the disastrous aftermath of U.S. withdrawal from Indochina. And many of the liberal religionists who opposed Vietnam later lapsed into an unfortunate mindset of moral equivalence between the democratic West and the Soviet bloc. But most of them were guided by idealism and a vision of hope for the world. They believed in Providence.

Faith in a guiding and a benevolent Providence does not seem equally to illuminate the current spiritual descendants of the anti-Vietnam War era movement. Iraq and several other terrible conflicts aside, the world today is more peaceful than in nearly any other time in human history, most of which is painted with the blood and horror of perpetual conflict. This relative global peace, facilitated partly by American power, is also accompanied by a growing prosperity where previously horrid poverty was the nearly exclusive rule. Not only are tens of millions of Chinese and Indians now entering the middle class, but much of impoverished sub-Saharan Africa is now experiencing strong economic growth for which there is no precedent in previous centuries.

But to hear the Religious Left's many gloomy prophets, the world resembles 1940, with a new Dark Age on the horizon. One typical commentary comes from the chief Washington, D.C. lobbyist for the United Methodist Church. In an Internet newsletter for his Board of Church and Society, Jim Winkler finds little light outside of his own Capitol Hill office.

"The dreadful and stupid war in Iraq drags on and on," Winkler opened. "The number of dead grows each day. Some 3800 U.S. soldiers have been killed and thousands upon thousands more are wounded. Some U.S. soldiers are serving their third and fourth tours with resulting trauma and broken lives and families. Tens, likely hundreds, of thousands of Iraqis have been killed and slaughtered."

According to Winkler, "There is no end in sight." Suicide bombings and collapsing infrastructure have made Iraq worse than under Saddam. "The United States of America is to blame," he asserted. "We have made life intolerable for Iraqis. We should and must hang our heads in shame."

In contrast to other observers, Winkler asserted that the U.S. "surge" in Iraq "is plainly not succeeding," though the "spin machine" will try to tell us otherwise. The war in also a failure in Afghanistan, which was never a "realistic candidate for so-called 'nation-building.'" And the Taliban now looks "appealing" to many Afghanis, Winkler bewailed.

Meanwhile, back home, Americans are "numb to the daily reports of failure and disaster," Winkler wrote. President Bush is "stubborn." Congress will not act decisively against the President. The people are "hopeless and apathetic." Even worse, the Democratic presidential candidates promise to keep U.S. troops in the region, offering a "false promise" to end the war.

"Presidents are notoriously unwilling to surrender power accumulated by their predecessors, whatever political party they may have pledged allegiance to," Winkler surmised. "I am skeptical as to whether the doctrine of preventive war or increased powers to spy on the people will be repudiated by the next President."

Ultimately, the American people are to blame for these "failed wars" and moral lapses. "Let's face it, had the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan war been successful Americans would have enthusiastically supported an invasion of Iran where, finally, the ship would have run aground," Winkler fretted. "Too many Americans are paralyzed by a mistaken understanding of patriotism, equating opposition to the unnecessary war with treason." The U.S. is "self-absorbed and self-pitying."

Even Winkler's own church has failed. He noted that United Methodist bishops had "repented" for their supposed lack of energy in opposing the Iraq War from the start, despite their endless anti-war declarations. "But since then they have again fallen silent," Winkler lamented, perhaps expecting the Methodist bishops to immolate themselves like the Buddhist monks of South Vietnam.

Winkler tersely concluded by noting that Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders are calling for a "communal fast" against the war "in a time of calamity." He urged: "Have faith." But faith in what? He did not elaborate. For the Methodist lobbyist, the world is spinning almost irrevocably out of control.

Contrast Winkler's anti-war despair with Martin Luther King's confident appeal to Providence and hope. King's famous 1967 sermon at Riverside Church in New York where he unveiled his opposition to the Vietnam War is sadly suffused with naivete about the brutal nature of communist North Vietnam. But in a far more troubled era threatened by nuclear destruction, and during a war whose military and civilian casualties were exponentially greater than Iraq's, King still insisted that God remained on His throne.

"Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter -- but beautiful -- struggle for a new world," King implored. "This is the calling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard?" King answered "no." He pointed to another message of "longing, of hope, of solidarity." And he concluded with the words from the haunting hymn "Once to Every Man and Nation" by James Russell Lowell.

Though the cause of evil prosper,
Yet 'tis truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold,
And upon the throne be wrong:
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
And behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow
Keeping watch above his own.

Does today's Religious Left, after decades of theological deconstruction, still believe that God is still "keeping watch above His own"? It often appears not. "Process theology," a fad of liberal Protestant seminaries, denies the Christian view that God is omnipotent and instead proposes that God is constantly evolving. A leading process theologian is David Ray Griffin of United Methodist Claremont seminary in California and a prominent 9-11 conspiracy theorist who insists that the Bush Administration blew up the World Trade Center and Pentagon to justify its wars. Many thousands are complicit in the plot, of course.

Having dethroned God as the ruler of history, process theology admits that evil and its endless conspiracies can spiral onward indefinitely, perhaps even eternally. Consciously or not, the modern Religious Left, unlike earlier liberal religionists, seems to subscribe to this despairing cosmology. More traditional people of faith, whatever their views on the Iraq War, have far more cause for hope.

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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.