- The Washington Times - Friday, March 21, 2003

A recent Gallup poll shows that churchgoing Americans are more likely to support war against Saddam Hussein than Americans as a whole.
This news has failed to capture the attention of most media, both liberal and conservative. They continue to chant the mantra that America's religious community, excepting the "religious right," is nearly united against the war.
According to Gallup, Americans who attend church at least once a week support war to depose the Iraqi dictator by an almost 2-to-1 margin. Americans who never attend church or say religion is not important to them are more evenly divided.
This poll undermines the claims of anti-war church leaders who claim to speak for American Christians on Iraq. It is a claim that even overseas heads of state seem to accept. Anti-war delegations from the chronically left-wing National Council of Churches have gained audiences with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, Russian President Vladimir Putin and the pope. President Bush, more aware that the church council's influence barely reaches beyond Manhattan, has declined the honor of such a meeting. He has even refused to meet with anti-war bishops of his own United Methodist denomination, one of whom has even filmed a television ad against war.
Even Iraqi Deputy Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz, with whom the church council has also met, has referred to "the church" in America being opposed to war against his regime. In an interview on Fox News, Mr. Aziz questioned how Christian Mr. Bush could possibly be when he ignores his fellow believers. And former President Jimmy Carter, in a recent New York Times op-ed, claimed there is an "almost universal conviction of religious leaders" in America opposing this war.
But, the Feb. 17-19 Gallup poll shows that 63 percent of Americans who attend church at least once a week support the war. Support for war among self-defined evangelicals and "religious right" supporters was predictably higher. Overall, 59 percent of Americans support war. Less religious Americans were somewhat less supportive. Fifty-seven percent of Americans who attend church once a month support war. Those who seldom attend support war by 56 percent. Fifty-five percent of those who never attend church support war. Those who say religion is not very important are evenly divided over war.
Mainline Protestant church officials, especially those associated with the National Council of Churches, have been especially outspoken in opposing war. Mainline Protestants account for fewer than one-third of American Christians. And their denominations have suffered continuous membership decline since the 1960s. Their church leaders are famously more liberal than church members, who, according to polls, remain slightly more conservative than the general American population.
America's Catholic bishops have also been negative toward war against Saddam, though in a less vitriolic manner than mainline Protestant officials. Mainline Protestant officials have often sounded like utopian pacifists, largely ignoring their own churches' historic support for Christian just-war-teaching. The Catholic bishops have not forgotten their tradition of just war but argue that war with Iraq does not meet that tradition's exacting criteria. Catholics comprise one-third of American Christians.
Evangelicals comprise about one-third of American Christians. According to Gallup, they are the most supportive of war. But, many evangelical churches are nondenominational, lack centralized church agencies or do not have church leaders who routinely make political pronouncements. Southern Baptist Convention leaders have expressed support for this war. Some evangelical leaders, though typically supportive of assertive U.S. military policies, have withheld comment for fear of endangering Christians living in predominantly Muslim countries.
Why are religious Americans more prone to support war with Iraq, while the more secular are less supportive? First, as the last presidential election showed, religious people of almost all persuasions are increasingly gravitating toward the Republican Party. More secular people are trending towards the Democratic Party. Mr. Bush's election depended not just on conservative evangelicals but also on churchgoing Catholics and mainline Protestants. So, it is not surprising that religious Americans are somewhat more inclined to trust Mr. Bush's judgment.
But, there also might be deeper spiritual reasons for the religious divide over war. Traditional religious people understand that the world is fallen and sinful. War, therefore, is lamentable, but sometimes unavoidable, if evil is to be resisted. Secular people, who are less influenced by biblical notions of human sin, are often more idealistic and utopian. In their view, war can be avoided through greater human efforts at goodwill and humanitarian outreach.
Why the divide between America's religious people and many of their leaders? That question is more complicated. But, for many church leaders, especially among the mainline Protestants, the 1960s era of anti-war protests was their defining social justice moment. Many of them, and probably more than a few Catholic bishops as well, continue to view the world through the prism of Vietnam rather than 2,000 years of Christian history. Their pro-war lay people may not recall church history. But, they might understand the world and its fallen nature a little better.

Mark Tooley directs the United Methodist Action committee of the Institute on Religion and Democracy.

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