Published on Saturday, October 5, 2002 by the New York Times
Evangelical Figures Oppose Religious Leaders' Broad Antiwar Sentiment
by Laurie Goodstein
Christian leaders and ethicists who represent a broad swath of the nation's Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox and African-American churches are speaking out against war with Iraq, a chorus of opposition that prompted five conservative evangelicals yesterday to announce their support for the president.
Even Jewish leaders are divided, a surprise to some policy makers who had assumed that American Jews would wholeheartedly support aggressive action to rid Israel of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein.
Although several Jewish groups have backed President Bush's approach, a major umbrella organization, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, recently postponed a vote of support after board members disagreed about the consequences of initiating a war in the region.
As Mr. Bush prepares to make the case to move against Iraq in a speech on Monday, a surprisingly diverse cross-section of religious leaders say they are unconvinced that war is necessary, moral or wise.
The objectors represent not only the traditional pacifist churches. They are also joined by many "just-war" adherents who say war can be moral under certain conditions, and who have in the past supported American intervention in Afghanistan, Bosnia and the Persian Gulf.
One hundred Christian ethicists signed a one-sentence declaration last month that opposed a pre-emptive war on Iraq. The signers belong to a broad range of denominations and teach at universities that run from the liberal Catholic and Protestant to the conservative evangelical.
"It's not just the usual left-leaning crowd," said Shaun Casey, an assistant professor of Christian ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary, a Methodist institution in Washington and who helped gather signatures. "You can't dismiss this group by saying, `There they go again.' There's some very conservative and moderate voices in this group of 100."
In religious circles, the antiwar voices are vastly outnumbering the those in favor of a war. Forty-eight Christian leaders, including the heads of the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the United Church of Christ and the National Baptist Convention, an African-American denomination, have sent a letter to the president opposing military action.
At the White House last month, Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, handed a letter to Mr. Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, saying that the bishops urged the president "to step back from the brink of war."
The National Council of Churches, which includes 36 Protestant and Orthodox denominations and frequently criticizes foreign policy, has also announced its opposition. Leaders of member churches spent part of last week on Capitol Hill trying to encourage legislators to question the president's war plans.
"Many of our members really want some evidence that the administration has thought about the unintended consequences of going to war with Saddam Hussein," said the Rev. Robert W. Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, and a former member of Congress.
In interviews, many Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders said they feared that an attack on Iraq could kill many Iraqi noncombatants, inflame the violence between the Israelis and the Palestinians, fuel further anti-American sentiment in the Arab and Muslim worlds and set a precedent that would encourage other nations to take unilateral action against their enemies.
Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan, which serves Judaism's conservative branch, said, "If we do this unilaterally, it sets us back in terms of international relations to the days of the jungle."
The president of the North American Council for Muslim Women in Washington, Sharifa Alkhateeb, said: "No one that I know of is supporting war. It will be a war not just against Saddam Hussein and the small group who support him, but against the people of Iraq, who are already suffering."
To counteract the chorus of negativity, Dr. Richard D. Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, stepped forward to back Mr. Bush. Mr. Land drafted a letter that argued that using military force against Iraq would fit the theological definition of a "just war," because it would amount to a defensive action against a biological or nuclear strike from Mr. Hussein.
Dr. Land said that he had circulated the letter for four days and that four prominent evangelicals had signed it, Bill Bright, founder and chairman of the Campus Crusade for Christ International; Charles W. Colson, chairman of the Prison Fellowship Ministries; D. James Kennedy, president of Coral Ridge Ministries Media; and Dr. Carl D. Herbster, president of the American Association of Christian Schools.
The issue of a first strike also divides Jewish leaders. B'nai B'rith has strongly supported a Congressional resolution to authorize an attack on Iraq. The Union of American Hebrew Congregations, which represents Reform Judaism, agreed it would back unilateral action, as long as Congress approved and the president sought support from other nations.
But in a recent teleconference call, board members of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which represents 123 local and 13 national groups, could not agree on whether an invasion would result in victory or catastrophe. They plan to take up the question again at a meeting on Oct. 14.
Next week, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations will weigh in. Its chairman, Malcolm Hoenlein, said, "If we fail to act or act and fail, the consequences would be great."
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