WASHINGTON - Christian church leaders and lay people are taking an usually prominent role in the U.S. anti-war movement, arguing that an attack against Iraq would not fit the theological definition of a "just war."
Leading Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian and Lutheran clergy have for months been issuing statements and writing petitions against the war and urging their followers to join anti-war demonstrations. A leading Methodist bishop even recently appeared on a television commercial against the war.
"The churches are very intensely involved in all aspects of the peace movement. They are playing a very visible and active role and they are equally involved behind the scenes in fundraising, grassroots organizing and just rolling up their sleeves and working," said Tom Andrews, a former Democratic member of Congress who now serves as national director for Win Without War, an umbrella anti-war group.
Barbara Epstein, a history professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said church leaders had opposed many past U.S. wars but the extent of their involvement this time was remarkable.
"We see an extensive and growing role of the churches which is very remarkable and is greater than we have seen before," said Epstein, who has studied previous anti-war movements.
That is not to suggest that a majority of U.S. Christians oppose President Bush on Iraq. Many Protestants and Catholics do not agree with their leaders and polls suggest the president enjoys overwhelming support from southern conservatives, many of whom are evangelical Christians.
Richard Land, speaking for the 16 million-member Southern Baptist Convention, the largest denomination in the United States, recently wrote to Bush assuring him that the Iraqi threat satisfied the conditions of a "just war."
The same split emerged in the 1991 Gulf War, when some Protestant and Catholic leaders raised moral concerns about the U.S. military campaign to expel Iraq from Kuwait. But protests then were on a much smaller scale.
At the heart of the debate is the Christian doctrine of a just war, first formulated by St. Augustine in the 5th century and built upon by later generations.
"In religious terms, the issue comes down to the just war tradition, which holds that religion can sanction the constrained use of violence but only if certain conditions are fulfilled," said Frank Kirkpatrick, a professor of religion at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.
The current formulation lays out seven principles under which war is permissible: to resist aggression or to defend its victims; it should be waged to secure just goals; it should be a last resort; it should be waged by a legitimate legal authority; it should be limited in scope; its human cost should be proportionate to the good it is intended to achieve, and it should exclude civilians and noncombatants.
"The key provision is the one referring to war only as a last resort. That's where most of the churches feel that Bush has not yet made his case," said Kirkpatrick.
Bush acknowledged the debate in his State of the Union address last week when he said, "If war is forced upon us, we will fight in a just cause and by just means."
Some of the language of church leaders against the war has been surprisingly vehement. United Methodist Board of Church and Society director Jim Winkler caused a stir in religious circles in September 2002 when he stated it was "inconceivable that Jesus Christ would support this proposed attack."
A few weeks later, the Methodists wrote to Bush, who is a member of their church, saying, "A preemptive war by the United States against a nation like Iraq goes against the very grain of our understanding of the gospel, our church's teachings, and our conscience."
More recently, Frank Griswold, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, got into a public dispute with former President George Bush, father of the present incumbent.
In an interview with a religious news service, Griswold said, "We are loathed and I think the world has every right to loath us ... I'd like to be able to go somewhere in the world and not have to apologize for being from the United States."
The elder Bush, who is an Episcopalian, said, "I found these particular quotes to be offensive. And knowing the president as I do, I found them uncalled for."
Spurred by statements from Pope John Paul II, who last month implored Washington to look for peaceful ways to settle its differences with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, Catholic leaders have also spoken out strongly against the war.
New York Cardinal Edward Egan recently called for U.N. weapons inspectors to be able to continue their work in Iraq. During a teleconference for priests, Egan said that justifying war requires "clear and certain knowledge of a clear and certain danger."
George Weigel, a prominent Catholic commentator and biographer of Pope John Paul II, said just war theory needed to be updated to meet new conditions, specifically the emergence of international terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction. He believes war against Iraq is justified.
"Some of these clerical opponents of war have given themselves over to a functional pacifism, a conviction that there are virtually no circumstances in which the proportionate and discriminate use of armed force can serve the goals of peace, order, justice and freedom," he said.
"The evangelical churches seem to have a clearer understanding of what wickedness can do in the world, a realization of the reality of evil," he said.
Copyright 2003 Reuters