American-Christian Theology and Support for War

by Greg Cook

Mine eyes have seen the glory

of the coming of the Lord:

He is trampling out the vintage

where the grapes of wrath are stored;

He hath loosed the fateful lightning

of His terrible swift sword:

His truth is marching on.

– first stanza of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” by Julia Ward Howe

As I was walking from my home to the credit union the other day, I stopped to read a sign in front of the Baptist church down the street. One side read, “We support our troops and their mission — freedom!” The other side finished the thought: “Freedom is bought with blood — thank God for the Cross!”

I read the words over several times, committing them to memory so I could write them down accurately when I arrived home. The sentiments expressed on that sign frightened and exasperated me, especially in light of recent polls showing many U.S. Christians support the war in Iraq and approve of President Bush’s decision to proceed with conflict, even while many U.S. Christian denom­inational leaders speak out against war. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press in its report, Different Faiths, Different Messages said, “Solid majorities of white evangelicals, mainline Protestants, and Catholics favored the U.S. taking military action to end Saddam Hussein’s rule. Support was strongest among Evangelicals, 77 percent of whom supported war, com­pared with 62 percent of Catholics and mainline Protestants. But only 36 percent of African-American Protestants supported military action, and seculars — respondents who said they were atheists or had no religious affiliation — divided evenly on the question (44 percent in favor, 44 percent opposed).”

These statistics reveal a great deal. Americans are a relatively religious people. The identification of nation with religion goes back to the roots of America. At first this was a Protestant phenomenon, but over time the Roman Catholics and Orthodox have had to face the question: does American or religious identity come first? And, is America a Christian nation? The Orthodox Church condemns the placing of national identity over faith in Christ as the heresy of phyletism. Despite this, nationalism and faith have often gone together, prompting Bishop Kallistos Ware to write, “Nationalism has been the bane of Orthodoxy for the last ten centuries.” (The Orthodox Church, 1997, p. 77)

But in America the problem has been different, because although Protestantism has arguably dominated the nation’s religious landscape since its founding, it might also be said that nationalism has dominated all faiths since the beginning. Fr. Alexander Schmemann addressed that problem in the 1960s. He wrote, “How can we live our Orthodox faith which claims the totality of our existence within a culture which also claims to shape our existence?” (The Mission of Orthodoxy, Conciliar Press: 1994, p. 4)

The question of whom we serve becomes most pertinent in this context. The dilemma is apparent in the Black Christian community, where support for the war is low compared with other Christian groups. I believe it is the legacy of slavery which acts as a damper on Black Christian support for war. Slavery and subsequent oppression taught a different lesson than that learned by white American Christians who bought in to the theology of triumphalism and nationalism.

I am a former evangelical Protestant with a Roman Catholic mother who grew up in a mainline Protestant church. I have known countless Protestant men and women who were doing their best to live a Gospel-centered life, hence my perplexity at significant numbers of evangelicals and other American Christians supporting the war on Iraq. How, I ask myself, can support for war coexist with fidelity to Christ, the Prince of Peace?

One day I happened to be flipping channels on the television when I happened upon a commentator on the Trinity Broadcasting Network (owned and run by Protestant charismatics), heap scorn on those who oppose war on Iraq. This was followed by a man singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” a song made famous during the Civil War and resurrected since 9/11 as a new sort of national anthem.

Finally, I thought about a recent Newsweek magazine story about George W. Bush and his faith and wondered how Mr. Bush (who, during the 2000 election campaign, famously claimed Jesus as his favorite philosopher) can believe that a pre-emptive attack on Iraq is not only legal but part of his Christian duty? The answers, I believe, can be uncovered by examining U.S. history, history influenced by many strands of theology—most of them heretical.

I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,

They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;

I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps:

His day is marching on.

(Howe, stanza 2)

The fruit of heresy and schism is more heresy and schism. Take for example the Puritans and Presbyterians, Calvinist congregationalists who broke away from the Churches of England and Scotland, themselves schismatic entities ripped from the Roman Catholic Church. These Calvinists applied themselves diligently to make their new homeland truly “God’s country” by transforming the wilderness, killing or civilizing the native population, improving morals by regulating society and establishing schools to teach the Bible and other godly subjects. They wanted to make their commonwealth a “City on a Hill,” a reference to Matthew 5:14. Their successes led them to believe God was on their side with America as a new Israel. One of their intellectual and spiritual descendants, Woodrow Wilson, summed up the Calvinist worldview like this: “The world can be at peace only if the world is stable, and there can be no stability where the will is in rebellion, where there is not tranquility of spirit and a sense of justice, of freedom and right.” But many of the Calvinists’ descendants slipped into liberalism, Unitarianism (like Julia Ward Howe) or free-thinking skepticism. It was up to a new movement to help restore faith in Americans.

I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:

“As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal;

Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,

Since God is marching on.”

(Howe, stanza 3)

John and Charles Wesley are fascinating figures: Church of England priests with some Calvinist influence, scholars familiar with a wide range of secular and sacred literature, tireless evangelists and organizers. Their frustration with the low spiritual state of the English church in the 18th century led them to organize religious societies, united groups of men and women sharing the experience of a new birth in Christ and dedicated to methodically living as Christians. Evangelical Protestantism as we know it today (a personal born-again experience, human free-will, emphasis on the Bible, etc.) can mostly be traced to the Wesley brothers and their Calvinistic colleague George Whitefield: all three evangelized America, leading to great revivals; however, the result was not a renewed Anglican Church, but a whole new denomination — the Methodists. Soon enough, because of issues of slave-holding, women’s rights, temperance and the various “holiness” doctrines the Methodists split into many groups.

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;

He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat:

Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! be jubilant, my feet!

Our God is marching on.

(Howe, stanza 4)

America is a country built by war, including numerous campaigns over 250 years to eradicate American Indians or force them onto reservations, the Revolution, War of 1812, Mexican-American, Civil War and Spanish-American. All these wars contributed to the expansion of American territory. Nineteenth century America came to believe in “Manifest Destiny,” a doctrine based on the assumption the United States was expanding because of God’s favor. Logic then dictated that America’s enemies were God’s enemies. Twentieth century wars showcased the U.S. as a world power. Wilson (the son of a Presbyterian minister) foresaw the next step: world-wide American involvement leading to a new moral order. The rise of communism helped solidify the beliefs of many American Christians (Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox): they lived in a free, God-favored nation, and part of their duty as American Christians was to support the American government against the godless communists. To be American and Christian became nearly synonymous. When Christians like Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day and Archbishop Iakovos marched for civil rights or decried the Vietnam War they were seen by many as unpatriotic and pro-Communist and their faith was questioned.

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,

With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me:

As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,

While God is marching on.

(Howe, stanza 5)

Evangelical Protestant theology in the 21st Century focuses on a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ as Savior.” That is the ticket to heaven. Other matters, such as wars, just governance and social justice, take a back seat to that personal relationship, a personal relationship manifesting our culture’s rampant individualism. Non-evangelicals, while not necessarily subscribing to that theology, set aside their faith’s call to fidelity in favor of American identity. By interpreting the Bible outside the patristic tradition, Mr. Bush and his followers justify war, capital punishment, and economic injustice here and abroad. (For example, new heresies such as “Dispensational­ism” and belief in “The Rapture” help legitimize support for Israel against the Palestinians.)

Instead of looking for wisdom in the church fathers, nationalistic American Christians put their faith in God’s special plan for the country and trust a President they see as one of their own. Hence the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the largest single conservative Protestant denomination, supports the pre-emptive attack on Iraq. The SBC website recently profiled a Navy pilot involved in Iraq and how he prays and recites scripture as a good Baptist Christian. That profile is titled, “God & Country, Foundations of a Patriot’s Faith.” On the same site SBC president Dr. Jack Graham mentions that “President Bush’s autobiography, ‘A Charge to Keep,’ is titled from an old hymn written by Charles Wesley that says:

A charge to keep I have, a God to glorify,

A never-dying soul to save, and fit it for the sky.

To serve the present age, my calling to fulfill;

Oh may it all my pow’rs engage, to do my Master’s will!

Those who support the President and his lead to war believe that “To serve the present age, my calling to fulfill” is their duty as patriotic American Christians and truly their “Master’s will.” Alas that American ears too often hear the strident call of heresies and not the true teachings of Christ’s body, the “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.” Could it be that war supporters have used the mute button on the gospel while turning up the volume on the beating war drums? “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Matthew 6: 21) Where is America’s treasure? In the gospel admonition to seek peace, or in the ability to wage war on those it finds dangerous?

Greg Cook is a writer who lives in the Puget Sound region of Washington State with his wife and their three cats. Some of his memorable experiences include working as a cook aboard an aircraft carrier during the Iran hostage crisis, studying geopolitics at Syracuse University, and being homeless in upstate New York. He is a member of Holy Resurrection parish near Tacoma, Washington.

Copyright by the author.