Why Faith and Politics Donít Mix

by Klaus Brauch

Given George W. Bushís frequent and fervent exclamations of piety and faith in Godís approval of his cause, itís not too surprising that support for the Presidentís agenda is strongest among the conservative and religious right wing. But the majority of the American public, unlike the citizens of all other developed nations, continues to trust the President and give their approval for a unilateral war against Iraq. There can be only one explanation for this. Recent polls and the 2000 census indicate that most Americans claim to be devoutly religious and their faith leads them to equate Christian beliefs with ethics and morality. This perception is so strong that over 40% of Americans polled now believe that Saddam Hussein was behind the 9/11 attacks, a claim, which even the Bush government has never made.

The volume of so-called "God Talk" emanating from the White House, Attorney General Ashcroft, and others in the administration, has raised alarms with many civil libertarians and constitutional critics who see it as a front for tearing down the constitutional walls between church and state in America. These fears are justified since public trust in the Christian ethic is so strong that the public, Congress, and the Senate have meekly accepted the dramatic curtailment of American civil liberties brought about by Mr. Ashcroft and his Patriot Act.

The argument that devout Christians can do no evil and operate with the blessing and possibly even at the behest of Godís higher authority has far more serious implications when applied to the context of international relations and the prospects of a pre-emptive war against Iraq. But the belief that strong religious convictions are an assurance of ethical or legal behavior doesnít mesh with either historical fact or with logic.

Godís blessings and support have been used as justification for everything from the divine right of Kings, to the unleashing of the Crusades. Blindly trusting and following leaders who claim that God is on their side, leaders like Hitler as one example, has proven to be unwise at best and catastrophic at worst. The world has had more than its share of religious wars and probably the vast majority of human conflict can be laid at the doorstep of misguided faith, much of it Christian. We need to remember that "God is Great" and "God Bless America" are two equally fervent views by devout believers on opposite sides of the same bloody confrontation.

The true domain of religion should be to establish a moral template for each individualís personal and private code of behavior. According to Jesus, meaningful prayer was meant to be conducted in private between the individual and God. "And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites [are]: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men." Mat 6:5. Private, meaningful prayer is clearly the opposite of the public displays of piety that we see daily from Americaís leaders.

Sadly, too many wars have been launched in the name of religion or, even worse, in support of one religion against another. Only recently have civilized people sought to establish a moral basis for war, to justify it as a necessary instrument of policy, to ensure peace, provide security or defend the innocent against oppression. War is terrible, but clearly belongs within the domain of politics, the realm of Caesar, not of Christ. Jesus admonished all of us that we should "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's., Mar 12:17" Attaching a religious cause to this war is unwarranted, unprovable and not morally justifiable. Additionally, it raises innumerable questions about whose policies and what motives are really being hidden under the veil of religious propriety.

Americaís moral position in the world has been attained at great cost in blood, sweat and tears, but attacking Iraq first and without UN approval would do much to destroy the nationís standing in the international community. Itís not as if America has never waged a pre-emptive war. The 500 year war to subdue the indigenous peoples of North America has left a stain on our nationís history. The Spanish American war was another example of trumped up causes, "manifest destiny" and imperialism run amok. Some recent history has been kinder to Americaís reputation of course. The First, Second, Korean and Bosnian wars were noble endeavors, fought in self-defense or on behalf of undeniably just causes. Our claims to demand freedom and justice for the worldís people are in large part based on the legal and moral nature of our involvement in these conflicts.

To maintain moral leadership of the world community, however, America needs not only to proclaim human rights, freedom and fairness for everyone, but we need to practice these principles as well. The decision to go to war in the Middle East must be made in the context of indisputable legality, factual correctness, and with the full consent of the international community. Masking our war with Iraq in pious pronouncements while sending shifting and confusing messages about our motives will only serve to destroy our hard earned reputation as a just and ethical people. Saddam Hussein may be evil and his regime illegitimate in the eyes of peace loving people everywhere, but until he strikes the first blow or proves to be indisputably in the act of attacking others, there is no justification for a pre-emptive strike.

This week, Archbishop Desmond Tutu commented that "President George W. Bush is a man of faith. We can only hope that he believes in law as well." This was a startling observation for a man of the cloth. In short, even some spiritual leaders agree that Mr. Bush and his team need to set aside their religious zeal and base their decision for action in the gulf on the facts and international consensus alone. Anything else will be just another example of why faith and politics make a deadly and undesirable mix.


Klaus Brauch [ renaissance@learningteacher.com]


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