Fall 2002, Vol. 5, No. 3

Table of Contents
Fall 2002

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Articles in this issue

Our Muslim Neighbors

9/11 On Our Mind

Scandal Without End

After the Globe

Choosing Up Sides in the Middle East

Reading the Koran in Chapel Hill

Faith Based Administration

Amazing Graceland

Sex in the (Catholic) City

Choosing Up Sides in the Middle East
By Dennis R. Hoover











Nearly 10 years ago, Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington published his influential Foreign Affairs article on the "Clash of Civilizations," which forecast, among other things, a growing rift between "Western Civilization" (defined largely by the Western "Judeo-Christian" religious traditions—Jewish, Roman Catholic, Protestant) and "Islamic civilization." For fans of this interpretive paradigm (whose ranks have swelled since 9/11), the contemporary crises in the Middle East—both the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the looming U.S.-Iraq war—fit the mold.

But on the home front the predicted rally effect across Judeo-Christian traditions has failed to materialize. Indeed, only Protestant fundamentalists (motivated more strongly than ever by their apocalyptic interpretation of Biblical prophecies regarding the Middle East) seem to be itching for a civilization fight. Liberal Protestants and Catholics, by contrast, have continued to offer qualified sympathy for the Palestinian cause and to oppose a war against Iraq, especially if conducted without U.N. approval.

In fact, the religious debate in the United States has largely reflected domestic "culture war" divisions—liberals vs. conservatives within the Judeo-Christian traditions—rather than an expected rally effect. There is one partial exception, that is, American Jews (including some liberal Jews) and Protestant fundamentalists have joined hands in supporting tough action against both Palestinians and Iraqis. But it is the product of an awkward marriage of convenience between old-fashioned realpolitik and millennialism, not newfound civilization kinship.

The limited extent of Judeo-Christian convergence is perhaps especially remarkable with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the wake of 9/11, the Israeli government of Ariel Sharon argued that its military actions in the West Bank should be seen as part of a larger war on Islamist terrorism, and thus morally continuous with U.S. military action against Al Qaeda.

While polls did show the general public tacking more toward a pro-Israel position, there were many who resisted an easy equivalence. For instance, on April 20 the Minneapolis Star Tribune profiled Churches for Middle East Peace, an umbrella advocacy group backed primarily by mainline Protestants and Catholics that opposes (however fecklessly) hard-line Israeli policies and their American apologists.

Mainliners were even less likely to see the proposed war on Iraq as a legitimate extension of the war on terrorism. Coverage of religious opinion on the Iraq crisis didn’t really begin to ramp up until early September this year, when reporters took notice of a recently released statement from the mainline World Council of Churches (WCC), which called on the United States to "desist from any military threats against Iraq."

Close on the heels of the WCC’s peace statement came others from U.S. mainline denominations and/or their leaders and from the National Council of Churches, which launched an anti-war lobbying campaign. The U.S. Catholic Bishops (whose energies were diverted by the priest pedophilia crisis) were slow in articulating a collective position, but in the course of their annual fall meeting they found time to issue a statement November 13 declaring that "We continue to find it difficult to justify the resort to war against Iraq, lacking clear and adequate evidence of an imminent attack of a grave nature."

On September 23, a group of 100 Christian ethicists (moderate to liberal) issued a succinct, widely covered statement: "As Christian ethicists, we share a common moral presumption against a pre-emptive war on Iraq by the United States."

As reported in the September 1 Lancaster, Pennsylvania Sunday News, pacifists, who had been pushed back on their heels in the debate over war in Afghanistan last year, had found their footing, and a great many more allies, in the debate over Iraq. Moreover, as Frances Grandy Taylor noted in the September 18 Hartford Courant, there are growing connections between the Iraq peace camp and Israeli-Palestine peace camp.

Most mainline Christians expressed their objections in terms of "just war" theory, an ancient tradition of moral reflection on government use of military force. Because of the unusually public nature of the debate over Iraq, journalists were able to cover an unusually public argument over the detailed application of just war theory. "What Makes a War Just?" asked the headline on Larry Witham’s September 26 article in the Washington Times. It was a question addressed in scores of reports and op-eds.

The just war tradition stipulates a number of criteria, and two of them were of particular concern for opponents of the Iraq war. First, war must be a "last resort," and many were worried that the doctrine of pre-emptive action fails to satisfy this criterion. Second, the decision on war must be taken by a "legitimate authority," and because Iraq represents an international rather than national problem, many felt that the legitimate authority must be conceived in terms of international law. Discomfort with U.S. hegemony and unilateralism was interwoven with this latter objection.

Many conservatives thought just war criteria were amply satisfied. The September 26 Wall Street Journal editorial, "Wayward Christian Soldiers, " read, "We confess that we’re not experts on Christian doctrine. So maybe we missed the revelation, in Thomas Aquinas or elsewhere, that no war is just unless it is sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council…. We recognize that Christian leaders believe they are accountable to a Higher Authority, but can’t they do better than the U.N.?"

For their part, Jewish organizations were largely supportive of military action against Iraq. "Do It: Jewish Leaders in U.S. Favor Pre-Emptive Military Strike," announced the headline on Liz Halloran’s September 24 piece in the Hartford Courant. However, some Jewish groups did urge that every effort be made to secure international backing before resorting to unilateral (or near-unilateral) action.

On September 15, the Boston Herald’s Eric Convey found it ironic that some of the strongest anti-war sentiment had issued from United Methodist ranks, a denomination to which both the president and vice president belong. "If Bush seems undeterred," Convey averred, "it might be in part because the evangelical Protestants to whom he turned for support in the 2000 election have had little to say negatively on the Iraq question."

On September 28, New York Times columnist Peter Steinfels noted rightly that part of the reason for evangelicals’ support is the influence of Catholic neoconservatives, such as George Weigel of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. In recent years, many evangelicals’ traditional anti-Catholicism has softened, and their thinking on political issues has been informed by the Catholic tradition of social thought, including just war theory.

Of late, the neoconservative reading of just war theory sounds remarkably close to liberal interventionism. Steinfels wrote that, "The latest issue of Christianity Today, the leading evangelical journal, quotes Mr. Weigel and rejects the argument of many administration critics that a pre-emptive action against Iraq would necessarily be unjust. Not only might it be just, the magazine editorializes, it might ‘perhaps be an act of Christian charity and duty.’"

But because the theater is the Middle East, wars and rumors of wars resonate for many conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists in a way that goes much deeper than "just war" theorizing. In his September 28 Washington Post article, "Religious Leaders’ Voices Rise on Iraq: Most Question U.S. Moves Toward War, But Evangelicals Embrace Bush Policy as Assault on Evil," Bill Broadway turned to Richard Cizik (of the National Association of Evangelicals), who said, "In this instance, the president has articulated a faith much like our own," which includes the explicit acknowledgement of the existence of "evil," embodied in people like Saddam Hussein. "This isn’t preemption, but another step in responding to the continuum of terrorism, of evildoers," Cizik added.

The September 9 Tampa Tribune reported on a speech by Bob Jones III, who gave unqualified support to the president. "Let the United Nations fly a kite," he said. In October, news broke that the Southern Baptist Convention’s Richard Land, irked by the mainline’s deluge of anti-war sentiment, had drafted a pro-war statement and rounded up a few other evangelical conservatives to sign it: Bill Bright, Charles Colson, D. James Kennedy, and Carl Herbster. Even Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice, which normally concerns itself with domestic issues, got into the act, starting a pro-war petition drive.

Islam has been increasingly vilified in the evangelical subculture. On September 9, the Springfield, Illinois State Journal-Register reported on a speech by Gary Bauer, Christian Right leader and sometime GOP also-ran. In it, he said, "I wish the president would be a little bit more, I guess, politically incorrect and say what we are at war with, and that is radical Islam—not all of Islam, but the radicals in that faith that have basically declared war on Jews and Christians and on Israel and the United States. I think it’s going to be hard for the American people to do all the things we should do unless our leaders make it clear who the enemy is."

Bauer’s comments were mild by comparison to the views expressed publicly by several other evangelical leaders. "Pulling No Punches: The Reverend Franklin Graham is Leading the Charge Against Islam," ran the headline on Martha Sawyer Allen’s story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune August 10. Graham asked Allen rhetorically, "Why haven’t Muslim clerics from around the world gathered at ground zero, held hands together and prayed to Allah for forgiveness and told the American people this is not Islam? Because they believe it was right."

"Open scorn for Islam has become a staple ingredient in the speeches of conservative Christian leaders since the September 11 attacks," concluded Susan Sachs in the June 15 New York Times. Sachs reported on anti-Islamic remarks made by Southern Baptist leader Jerry Vines (who said Muhammad was a "demon-possessed pedophile"), and by Pat Robertson (who said Islam is a religion that seeks to control, dominate, or "if need be, destroy" others).

The most widely publicized broadside came from Jerry Falwell, who, in an exchange with CBS News’ Bob Simon broadcast on "60 Minutes" October 6, blurted, "I think Mohammed was a terrorist. I read enough of the history of his life written by both Muslims and non-Muslims, that he was a violent man, a man of war."

Falwell later apologized. According to a report October 14, "He claimed he made a mistake while responding to a ‘controversial and loaded question’ at the end of an hour-long interview." Without commenting on the irony, the report added that, "Shiite Muslim clerics in Lebanon and Iran reacted with rage to Falwell’s remarks, and an envoy of Iran’s supreme leader called for his death."

Simon’s "60 Minutes" segment also explored the origins of Protestant fundamentalism’s growing bond with Israel—namely, it’s tendency to filter all matters Middle Eastern through the lens of dispensational eschatology.

"There is an alliance between America and Israel in the war on Islamic terror. But it goes deeper," noted Simon. "For Christians who interpret the Bible in a literal fashion, Israel has a crucial role to play in bringing on the Second Coming of Christ."

This is old news, as Christian conservatives have been apocalyptic allies of Israel for decades. What’s new is (a) the unprecedented intensity, since the most recent intifada began, of Christian Zionist passion for Israel, and (b) the extent to which American Jewish organizations are openly embracing this support.

Larry Witham was on the story early, writing in the April 6 Washington Times that, "The bloody conflict in the Middle East is again turning some evangelicals to the Bible for texts that speak of a final cosmic battle in those ancient lands." Hal Lindsey, who popularized the study of Bible prophecy in his 1970 book, The Late Great Planet Earth told Witham, "I see Israel as the only nation on Earth with a title deed to any real estate."

Many Christian fundamentalists are being encouraged to agree with this kind of sentiment. In late April, for instance, Christian Right wunderkind and GOP strategist Ralph Reed took to the op-ed pages of the Los Angeles Times and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to explain "Why Christians Stand Firm With Israel."

Arm chair Armageddonism has long been a favorite fundamentalist hobby, and in recent years there has been a surge in pop-eschatology, one not without political overtones. As David Waters noted in the August 21 Memphis Commercial Appeal, "Christian Zionism is the theology behind the best-selling ‘Left Behind’ books. It’s also the theology behind the rise of Israel as a favorite cause of the Christian Right."

"Jewish leaders don’t seem to mind the theology as long as it generates political support for Israel," Waters argued. He oversimplified matters, but there has indeed been a new level of Jewish-evangelical cooperation. For instance, the Anti-Defamation League republished Reed’s op-ed. Then on June 9, as David Firestone reported in the New York Times, Reed stood alongside Yechiel Z. Eckstein, president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, to announce the formation of a new lobby called Stand for Israel. Eckstein only half-jokingly called Stand for Israel "the Christian AIPAC."

For its part, AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) recently held its annual conference in Atlanta, where invited speakers included Reed. "Jewish Lobby Meeting in Bible Belt to tap Pro-Israel Sentiment in the South," announced Scott Shepard’s report for the Cox News Service October 1. AIPAC spokesman Josh Block remarked that AIPAC’s 40 percent membership surge in the last two years has come "from all over the religious spectrum."

A June 10 AP dispatch by Matt Curry reported that a group called Churches United With Israel had kicked off a series of pro-Israel rallies/prayer meetings. The first event, held June 9 in an Assemblies of God mega-church, featured welcome videos from Jerry Falwell, Pat Boone, and Benjamin Netanyahu, and an appearance by Jerusalem mayor Ehud Olmert. And on July 12, the Washington Times reported that Gary Bauer was joining hands with Orthodox Jewish Rabbi Daniel Lapin, a longtime cultivator of the Christian Right, to form a new group called the American Alliance of Jews and Christians.

In his July 13 article, "A Growing Friendship: Love for Israel Drawing Jews, Evangelical Christians Together," Tulsa World religion writer Bill Sherman interviewed Yehuda Katz, an Israeli emissary to Tulsa, who argued that although Israeli Jews have seen evangelicals as good friends for the last 20 or 30 years, American Jews have traditionally been cool-to-hostile toward evangelicals. "But something has happened in the last two years. They have realized that Israel, at its hardest time, has received huge support from the evangelical community, and not necessarily from liberals," said Katz.

Like evangelicals, the GOP has become more staunchly pro-Israel. A steady drumbeat of news stories speculated about the partisan implications for Jews, who are normally as Democratic as evangelicals are Republican: "Bush Stance Pleases U.S. Jewish Groups" (Washington Post); "Liberal Jews Are Finding Common Ground With the Right" (Buffalo News); "Jewish Voters Noticing GOP’s Pro-Israel Moves" (St. Petersburg Times).

As Alison Mitchell reported in the New York Times April 21, it is a mistake to attribute American conservatism’s turn toward Israel entirely to pressure from Protestant fundamentalists. "The Likud Party in Israel has also built ties to conservatives," Mitchell noted, and "The departure from Republican ranks of Patrick J. Buchanan and his followers also muted the voices of conservatives who were more critical of Israel…. In the 1960s and earlier, the conservative movement included elements, like the John Birch Society, that were viewed as anti-Jewish. These elements, too, have waned."

It is also a mistake to read too much into the decision of Jewish groups to ally with Christian fundamentalists. To a large extent it is viewed as a tactical move born of necessity. Memories of an anti-Semitic legacy within fundamentalism are fresh. One of the biggest religion stories last March stemmed from newly released Nixon tapes from 1972, on which Billy Graham is heard exchanging anti-Semitic banter with the president (comments for which Graham profusely apologized).

There were also voices urging caution on the grounds that fundamentalist fervor for Israel is so strong that it is counterproductive. Indeed, some Christian Right leaders have associated themselves with the most radical positions in the Israel-Palestine debate. The aging Christian Right warhorse Ed McAteer told Bob Simon on "60 Minutes" that, "Every grain of sand, every grain of sand between the Dead Sea, the Jordan River, and the Mediterranean Sea belongs to the Jews." When Simon wondered what that would mean for the three million Palestinians who live on the West Bank and Gaza, McAteer suggested the bulk of them could be moved to some Arab country.

The headline of a column by Peter Beinart in the May 19 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette asked, "Does the Christian Right Understand Zionism?" He recalled how Rep. Dick Armey and Janet Parshall (Family Research Council) had recently made statements endorsing the idea of Israel transferring Palestinians out of the West Bank. Beinart argued that, "The overwhelming majority of Israeli politicians and intellectuals oppose deporting the Palestinians, because they speak in the shadow of the Holocaust. Even the ultra-far-right Moledet Part of assassinated Tourism Minister Rehavem Ze’evi—which seeks to make the Palestinians citizens of Jordan—does not suggest physically moving them."

For the Christian Right, Beinart continued, "Israel’s interests cannot be defined pragmatically, because Israel’s primary function is to clarify a larger worldview…. [F]or the Christian Right, Israel’s claims are moral only insofar as they are biblical. That runs counter to the mainstream Zionist tradition, one of the greatest achievements of which has been to establish moral claims to Jewish statehood—claims Israel incarnates as a liberal democratic state—that do not rely on scripture…. Ultimately, if you don’t love Israel for what it is, you can’t be trusted to love it at all."

By summer, the pro-Israel views of fundamentalists had moved so far to the right that it sparked a counter-movement of moderate evangelicals—an important ball most journalists dropped. In "Evangelical Leaders Ask Bush to Adopt Balanced Mideast Policy," a July 27 piece in the Washington Post, Caryle Murphy reported on a July 23 letter sent to President Bush insisting that "the American evangelical community is not a monolithic bloc in full and firm support of present Israeli policy." While they condemned suicide bombings, they also took a swipe at "the continued unlawful and degrading Israeli settlement movement." The 59 signatories included a wide array of evangelical luminaries, including Richard Mouw, Craig Barnes, Bob Seiple, Tony Campolo, David Neff, Gordon MacDonald, Ron Sider, James Skillen, Philip Yancey, and Marilyn Borst.

For American Jews, the alliance with Christian conservatives on Middle East politics is partial and provisional. Still, it is a remarkable development given the history of religious and political tension between the two communities. Abraham Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, put the matter delicately on "60 Minutes": "On this specific issue, on this day, we come together. And what is the issue? The issue is fighting terrorism."

"That is precisely what the Bush administration and the Israeli government have been saying since September 11, that they are allies in the war on terror," commented interviewer Bob Simon.

"But the Christian fundamentalists go further," he added. "They say it is not just an alliance between nations but between religions."

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