The Christian Case For War

Why have so many conservative Christians been strong supporters of the war on Iraq? Here are the beliefs, some long established, some new or specific to the current administration, that I am hearing from the ones I know:

  1. America’s role in the world has been overwhelmingly positive.
  2. The United States is not an empire.
  3. When the United States government has acted abroad, it has been to stop evil regimes like the Nazis and Communists and to help people.
  4. We should give the President the benefit of the doubt in regards to war because he knows a lot more about what is going on than we do.
  5. Even if the large troop and base presence abroad is acknowledged, this is viewed as benevolent. After all, the U.S. doesn’t collect tribute like the empires of old. In fact, the empire is costing the U.S. quite a bit. Resources are flowing out of our country to the rest of the world not the other way around.
  6. In modern high-tech warfare, weapons pinpoint the bad guys (“precision bombing”) and avoid hurting innocents (“collateral damage”).
  7. The liberal media is against this war, so there must be something good about it. (A quick explanation of this for non-evangelicals: Think of how the media handled The Passion of The Christ. We conservative evangelicals have been watching the mass media fumble or outright misrepresent any issue that we know about well all our lives. Conservative Evangelicals probably trust the mainstream media about as much as the Soviet citizens trusted Pravda.)
  8. George W. Bush seems to sincerely be a Christian so we can trust him on these matters.
  9. George W. Bush was called by the Lord to be our leader in this post-9/11 world.
  10. The Muslims hate America and Israel because they are fanatically and unreasonably anti-American and anti-Semitic.
  11. The war on Iraq is a just war of pre-emptive self-defense against worldwide jihad.
  12. Bush is being realistic in his response to terrorism (“Take the battle to the enemy.”) as opposed to the naïve liberal “just be nice” response.
  13. The world is different from the world of the Founders of the U.S. The oceans don’t buffer us anymore. Non-intervention is no longer an option. Non-involvement doesn’t seem a realistic option. They’re over here, planning more 9/11s.
  14. This is spiritual warfare between Christians and the Lord’s Chosen People, the Jews, against the aggressive followers of the false religion Islam. (“Resist the devil.”) Mohammad was no Gandhi! He was a ruthless military leader.

I hope this list helps to make clear why Christian supporters of the war have not been easily swayed from their position by discouraging developments in Iraq. There is a whole worldview here with intertwined beliefs about politics, U.S. history, military reality, the press, the presidency, the Middle East and religion. For many of the Christian supporters of this war a profound paradigm shift would be required if they were to see things differently.

Here is the slim hope I have to write persuasively to American Christians on this matter: I have made that paradigm shift. I have abandoned none of my conservative theology and none of my commitment to Jesus or His Church (au contraire, my belief in the importance of the mission of His Church has only grown). Yet I have reached a place where as I look over the list above I realize that I think nearly every point is either a dangerous half-truth or an outright deception. How is it that I can be in such strong agreement on core values with my fellow believers and yet see current events so differently? I invite you to read this series of articles to find out.

Let’s Get Started

I have partially addressed the beliefs about President Bush in a previous article, King Saul and President Bush. But to address the entire Christian case for war adequately is going to take some time. In this article I would like to start by summarizing the work of a fellow conservative evangelical, Laurence M. Vance. Mr. Vance is a Baptist who has recently published a book addressing several of the points in the Christian case for war: Christianity and War. Vance’s book is a slim volume, about 100 pages. Reading this information packed book is a small investment of time that will yield a lot of insight. (Please note that a number of the essays collected in this book have previously been published on I provide links to the original online articles in such cases.)

In the title essay, Mr. Vance argues against the notion that the President deserves the benefit of the doubt in regards to war. American conservative Christians tend to assume that the President knows more about what is going on in the world than they do (that is his job after all) and that he uses this knowledge to defend us. Mr. Vance shows that, on the contrary, Presidents Polk (1846), Lincoln (1861), McKinley (1898), Wilson (1916), Roosevelt (1940), Johnson (1964), Bush I (1991) and Bush II (2003) all “exaggerated, misinformed, misrepresented, and lied to deceive the American people into supporting wars that they would not have supported if they had known the facts.” Given this sorry record, rather than getting the benefit of the doubt, history would advise us to assume a President is lying when it comes to war.

Let me underscore this important point. Christian supporters of the war have fancied themselves hardheaded realists. But Vance’s sobering roll call of shame suggests that in trusting President Bush’s case for a war with Iraq, his supporters have ignored the hard lessons of U.S. history for a naïve fantasy.

A simple list of “Eight Facts About Iraq," destroys the case for the war on Iraq being a just war of self-defense and casts doubt upon the historic benevolence of the United States’ role in the world:

  1. There was no country of Iraq until it was created by the British in 1920.
  2. The United States already sponsored two previous regime changes in Iraq.
  3. Saddam Hussein was an ally of the United States until the first Persian Gulf War.
  4. Iraq got its “weapons of mass destruction” from the United States.
  5. Iraq was a liberal Muslim state.
  6. Iraq was not responsible for the 9-11 attacks on the United States.
  7. Iraq was not a threat to the United States.
  8. Iraq is the Mideast’s second largest oil producer.

Was the U.S. having a positive effect on the world when allied with Hussein prior to 1991? When it gave Hussein chemical weapons? I do not know why the dodgy alliances that the U.S. government has regularly made do not give Christians pause. I mean here is a political figure that American Christians seem to be unanimous in condemning as a brutal dictator: Saddam Hussein. Yet, the United States government supported Hussein, indeed was instrumental in putting him into power in the first place. The government provided Hussein with weapons, including chemical and biological weapons.

Why hasn’t all this cast some shadow of doubt on Christians’ minds? I attribute this to two main factors: a short memory (which afflicts Americans in general) and a veritable whirlwind of spin from the interventionist conservative press (National Review, Commentary, etc.) But let’s face it folks. When American Christian leaders stand before the Lord on Judgment Day and He asks them why they gave their moral support to U.S. supported atrocities it isn’t going to cut it to say, “William Buckley told me we had to.”

The United States Is an Empire

One of the most useful services Vance’s book provides is to demonstrate the reality of a global empire run by the United States government. Vance uses DoD, Marine Corps and other government sources to meticulously document the extent of troops and bases deployed abroad. This important section was published in three parts on as The U.S. Global Empire, The Bases of Empire and Guarding the Empire.

Here is a quick summary of his conclusions. There are about 1,000 U.S. military bases in foreign countries. Let me say that one more time: one thousand military bases on foreign soil! These bases officially are in 39 countries around the world, but that official list leaves out a half-dozen others (like Afghanistan, Kuwait and Iraq!) and possibly even more.

Counting bases is one way to document the extent of the U.S. global military presence, but that leaves aside countries where no full base exists but U.S. troops nevertheless are present. Counting all the troops stationed throughout the world, Vance writes, “the United States has troops in 150 countries or territories." That is 150 out of 192 countries in the world. This count excludes Marines merely serving as embassy guards. Vance recounts the expanse of the empires of the past: The Roman Empire, the Mongol Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Ottoman Empire and the British Empire. But, this ubiquitous U.S. presence leads him to conclude, “Nothing, however, compares to the U.S. global empire.”

The reality of the U.S. Empire is a fact. You can be ignorant of it, but it cannot be denied. In a future article, I will more directly address the fallback positions of American war supporters: The U.S. may have an empire, but it isn’t bad like all those empires of the past. (In some cases, the bold argument has been put forward that these empires of the past were not in fact as bad as Americans traditionally understood them to be. But I think this case goes too blatantly against the anti-Empire origins of the U.S. to have much purchase… For now.)

Christians and War

An assumption that, though typically unstated, is obvious from watching many Evangelicals’ enthusiasm for the current war is that they hold the military, the U.S. military at least, to be a noble instrument of justice and a career in the current military to be completely compatible with Christian beliefs and the best of America’s traditions. Vance shows that this represents a sharp break from the traditional view of Christians and early Americans.

He cites the anti-federalist Brutus, the Cato Letters (much read and admired by the American colonists) and Thomas Jefferson on the evils of war and standing armies. Cato writes that “Great empires cannot subsist without great armies, and liberty cannot subsist with them.”

Vance shows the stark contrast between the early Americans’ attitude to war and the current enthusiasm for it, “Regarding the attitude toward war of the people of the United States, Jefferson believed that ‘no country, perhaps, was ever so thoroughly against war as ours. These dispositions pervade every description of its citizens, whether in or out of office.'” Elsewhere Jefferson wrote, “The spirit of this country is totally adverse to a large military force.”

A particularly striking quote from Jefferson demonstrates that his approach would now be condemned as “appeasement” and “capitulation to terrorists”:

In another statement regarding relations with the Indians, Jefferson again decried standing armies:

“We must do as the Spaniards and English do. Keep them in peace by liberal and constant presents. Another powerful motive is that in this way we may leave no pretext for raising or continuing an army. Every rag of an Indian depredation will, otherwise, serve as a ground to raise troops with those who think a standing army and a public debt necessary for the happiness of the United States, and we shall never be permitted to get rid of either.”

Finally, in a brief but important aside, Vance addresses a verse that has been used repeatedly to silence dissent among Christians: Romans 13:1.

“To justify their consent or silence, and to keep their congregations in line, Christian leaders repeat to their parishioners the mantra of ‘obey the powers that be,’ a loose paraphrase of Romans 13:1, as if that somehow means that they should blindly follow whatever the president or the government says, and even worse, that it overturns the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ (Exodus 20:13; Deuteronomy 5:17), which is repeated in the New Testament (Matthew 19:18; Romans 13:9). The way some Christians repeat the ‘obey the powers that be’ mantra, one would think that they would slit their own mothers’ throats if the state told them to do so.” (from Christian Killers?)