by Anthony Burke Smith
Washington Post religion reporter Hanna Rosin wrote April 3 that calls by
Christian leaders for an Easter cease-fire in the NATO bombing campaign had "left the
religious community as one of the few unified voices speaking out against Western military
involvement in Yugoslavia," she was mistaking a moment of unity for a consensus that
did not, in fact, exist. Easter cease-fires notwithstanding, the responses by American
religious leaders to the war in Kosovo have been all over the place, reflecting their
diverse moral traditions on war and armed conflict.
On March 25, the Church World Service Unit of the National Council of Churches called
for an immediate end to the NATO bombing and a negotiated settlement to the crisis by the
United Nations. At the same time, the international equivalent of the NCC, the World
Council of Churches, also denounced the bombing, and its General Secretary, Rev. Dr.
Konrad Raiser wrote the three WCC member churches in Yugoslavia "to express our
profound emotion" regarding the NATO attacks.
The NCCs and WCCs stance against the NATO bombing in part reflected the
fact that their membership includes Orthodox churches, to which the majority of Serbs
belong. Without question, however, the stop-the-bombing sentiment was the authentic
conviction of the mainline Protestant leadership, as witnessed by the delegation led by
Rev. Jesse Jackson and NCC Secretary General Joan Brown Campbell that won the release of
three captured American soldiers May 2.
But American Protestantism is no monolith. Los Angeles Times religion writer
Teresa Watanabe, who was particularly sensitive to the diversity of religious voices,
quoted Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Conventions Ethics and
Religious Liberty Commission, as supporting stronger military force: "I believe the
president and political leaders need to go before the people and make a case for much more
Meanwhile, on April 1 eight American Roman Catholic cardinals issued letters to
Presidents Clinton and Milosevic respectively calling for an end to the fighting and a
resumption of diplomatic negotiations. Yet Catholic sentiment was not as clear as this
gesture would suggest. Regarding the moral dimension of the war, Archbishop Theodore
McCarrick, president of the U.S Catholic Conferences International Policy Committee,
admitted, "Its a mess."
American Catholic leaders and thinkers sought to make their way through the mess by
drawing upon their long-standing natural law tradition of just-war theory. On the basis of
this theory, some suggested that the war might have a legitimate moral basis. Cardinal
Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, for instance, said in an April 13 interview with Ray Suarez
on NPRs Talk of the Nation that the failed efforts of diplomacy and the suffering of
the Kosovar Albanians "nudge the conflict into the just war category."
Similarly, the Los Angeles Timess Watanabe quoted noted Catholic
commentator and priest Andrew Greeley in early April regarding the justness of NATOs
actions in Yugoslavia: "It is a close call, therefore, as to whether the attacks
constitute a just war...Maybe. Maybe not." Rev. Gregory Coiro of the archdiocese of
Los Angeles, however, told Watanabe, "Personally, I have difficulty seeing this as a
just response....If you look strictly at the criteria, and ask what nation has been
attacked, it looks like NATO has attacked Yugoslavia. Its very difficult to say who
is the aggressor here."
Jewish leaders have tended to be less equivocal in their responses. Many have supported
the bombings, seeing the ethnic cleansing by the Serbs as an all-too familiar reminder of
their own history in Europe. Two weeks into the NATO bombing, the American Jewish Congress
noted the "pervasive suffering and despair on a scale unmatched in Europe since the
time of the Nazis. As Jews we are familiar with that kind of pain. And we cannot be
silent." The Congress reiterated its support for NATO and suggested that troops may
be necessary to end the crisis in Yugoslavia: "[A] proper level of force now can do
much to assure a more humane Europe in the years to come."
Because Orthodox and Muslim groups had religious ties to their co-religionists on
either side in Serbia and Kosovo, media coverage took special note of their views. The Los
Angeles Times and the Washington Post reported Orthodox opposition to the
war in their overviews of religious response to the crisis. On March 31, John Rivera of
the Baltimore Sun quoted Archbishop Sypridon, head of the Greek Orthodox Church
in America, protesting the NATO bombing: "We dont think it will provide us with
a solution....We think that will cause more bloodshed and that would even harden the
positions of the two parties involved." The Seattle Times, the Cleveland
Plain Dealer, and the Chicago Sun-Times also reported on local Orthodox
opposition to the NATO campaign.
By contrast, Jeffrey Gettleman of the Los Angeles Times quoted Ibrahim Hooper,
spokesman for the council on American-Islamic Relations, saying, "Muslims very often
feel they are the victims of U.S. foreign policy. Kosovo is a first because the American
intention is to help the Muslims." Another Times piece quoted a youth counselor at
the Islamic Society of Orange County: "For oh-so-long, Islam and Muslims have been
defined as terrorist in nature, but now weve got a great opportunity to draw
international attention to the fact that were religious and peaceful."
Once upon a time, the position of American religious leadership vis-a-vis the
nations wars was more unified. World War I found the countrys religious groups
thoroughly infected by the war fever that characterized the nations first major
overseas involvement of the century. Afterwards, in the 1920s and 1930s, religious leaders
reacted against this frenzy and championed peace at all costs. During World War II, they
supported the national cause while seeking to avoid the excesses of World War Is
The early Cold War enjoyed substantial religious support; indeed, it signaled a heyday
of national religious consensus on matters of war and peace. Mainline Protestantism was
dominated by the great mid-century theologian Reinhold Niebuhrs "Christian
realism," which legitimated the use of military force. Similarly, the anti-Communist
ultra-patriotism of New York Cardinal Francis Spellman gave clear Catholic support to
Americas global battle against the Soviet Union.
But the Vietnam War engendered a significant fracturing of the religious consensus that
supported Americas Cold War military ventures. An intensive soul-searching on the
part of Mainline Protestant (and some Catholic) leaders led to a questioning of the
morality of any armed conflict. And for a quarter-century, while some support the U.S.
role as military superpower, Mainline leaders for the most part have continued to
reiterate their opposition to war-making in general and American war-making in particular.
In the present case, they showed themselves out of step with the American people, who
generally supported, if not enthusiastically, the U.S. military intervention in Kosovo.
Since Vietnam there has been no clear moral consensus on the part of Americas
religious leaders concerning the use of military force, and journalists looking to find it
will find themselves frustrated. The big religion story here may be the marginalization of
Mainline Protestantism. The religious tradition that for most of the century represented
the moral voice of American society in war and peace at the end of the millennium found
itself a bit player.