Religious Left Goes Anti-War on Iraq

This fall, after major anti-war rallies in New York and Washington, it was movie stars like Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn and Martin Sheen who made headlines and got camera time for their speeches and participation.

But since then, the face of anti-war activism has taken on a humbler, older, and less glamorous look — that of United Methodist Bishop Melvin Talbert.

Talbert, a balding, bespectacled bishop who is past president of the National Council of Churches, the organization of mainline Protestant and Orthodox Christians, appears in a new anti-war television ad that began running late January on CNN and Fox stations in New York and Washington.

In the 30-second spot, sponsored by the NCC, and produced by Win Without War — an anti-war coalition of 32 national groups, from the NAACP to the National Organization of Women — Talbert says that invasion of Iraq "violates God's law and the teachings of Jesus Christ."

Talbert's presence in the ad campaign is symbolic of an anti-war movement that is becoming increasingly couched in religious terms.

"Religion is becoming the most important social base of opposition to the Bush race into war," said Rabbi Arthur Waskow, a prominent anti-war activist and head of The Shalom Center, a Jewish group based in Philadelphia.

In the past few months, liberal and mainstream religious groups have stepped up efforts to protest potential war with Iraq and have become an increasingly visible — and vital — part of the anti-war movement.

In addition to the television ad featuring Talbert, the National Council of Churches and its current leader, the Rev. Bob Edgar, have led a major campaign to sway public and international opinion against the Bush administration's Iraq policies through a trip to Iraq in January and a series of meetings with world leaders, including German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Meanwhile, many other Christian groups, several Jewish groups, and other religiously affiliated peace groups have been organizing against the war.

Presence at Weekend Rallies

This visibility is making opposition to the war the most successful mass movement for the religious left in years.

Religious groups were to play a major role in this weekend's anti-war activities. Special anti-war marches and rallies are being organized in close to 300 cities throughout the country, with especially large events slated for New York on Saturday and San Francisco today.

The events will have large religious contingents, from Jewish and Christian groups to the Buddhist Peace Fellowship.

Of the 32 members of the Win Without War coalition, 12 are religious groups, including several mainline Protestant denominations like the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, Catholic groups, the Unitarian Universalist Association, and the American Friends Service Committee.

The affiliation with religious groups "brings a sense of legitimacy to the anti-war activists. They can show people that they're not just Stalinists and Marxists," as they are sometimes perceived, said Rhys Williams, professor and department head in the Department of Sociology at the University of Cincinnati.

He said, with the involvement of religious groups, Americans can recognize anti-war activists as "a favorite aunt or Ned Flanders."

Religion is "one of the main driving forces in the [anti-war] movement," said Robert Benford, chairman of the Department of Sociology at Southern Illinois State University at Carbondale, who specializes in peace movements.

Disagreement

But religious participation in the anti-war movement is not welcome by all religious Americans.

"For many on the religious left, their theology has blinded them to the reality of evil like Saddam Hussein," said Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptist Convention's Religious Liberty and Ethics Convention and the denomination's official spokesman on Iraq.

The convention won't meet again till June, so it has not released an official statement supporting the war, but Land said a substantial majority of Southern Baptists support President Bush's policies on Iraq.

And Gary Bauer, chairman of the Campaign for Working Families and former presidential candidate, sent an e-mail to his supporters criticizing the National Council of Churches and Talbert's appearance in the television ad.

"The National Council of Churches (NCC), a group that has been AWOL on many of the great moral issues facing our nation, has suddenly 'got religion' on protecting Saddam Hussein," Bauer wrote.

TV Coverage

The NCC's anti-war efforts, particularly its delegation to Iraq in early January, have received coverage on all major TV networks, CNN, the BBC, and major newspapers and wire services throughout the country — giving this movement much greater prominence than any religiously based activity during the Persian Gulf War in 1991.

"This has been the most serious opposition to government activity I have seen recently [among the religious left]," said Bill Leonard, dean and professor of church history at the Divinity School at Wake Forest University.

"We've had a little more time to build visibility and mass, in terms of participation," explained the NCC's media liaison, Carol Fouke. "We've also done more organizing and coalition-building this time around, and we've been more aggressive getting our message out."

The religious focus seems to distinguish the American anti-war movement from that of other countries.

"Just how different America can be was evident from the placards at the most recent anti-war demonstration," Gary Younge wrote this week in The Guardian, a leading newspaper in the United Kingdom. "Compared with similar British marches, it was more religious — 'God loves people against the war', 'Peace is Jewish.'"

Anti-Vietnam Echoes

To anyone who remembers the Vietnam War protests, religious liberal involvement in the anti-war movement won't be a surprise. In the 1960s, members of the clergy like Catholic priests Philip and Daniel Berrigan, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. used their religious platforms to speak out against the war.

But, the University of Cincinnati's Williams explained, mainstream religious groups mostly joined the protests after it became clear the war wasn't winnable. Now, "it's much more about people feeling from the beginning that this doesn't seem like a moral place to get involved," he said.

Edgar agreed that there was a difference between religious protests now and during the Vietnam era, noting, "It took the church 10 years to organize against the war." He said the National Council of Churches, by contrast, has been organizing against the war since August, when Bush first announced he would act unilaterally against Iraq.

Anti-War Tactics

Religious groups' most dramatic step in organizing against the war was Edgar's trip to Baghdad in January with a delegation of other Christian leaders.

"They don't 'think,' but they 'know' that armed intervention in Iraq is anti-Christian," wrote Richard Land in his Beliefnet column about the NCC trip. "Such certitude is as startling in its arrogance as it is in its source, the habitually relativist NCC."

Other anti-war tactics and ideas have included inviting the pope to speak out against the war at the United Nations and the "Food for Bombs" project, which encourages participants to mail a half-cup of uncooked rice in an envelope to President Bush, along with a quote from the New Testament, "If your enemies are hungry, feed them (Romans 12:20)."

The most controversial tactic of peace activists is the "human shield." Anti-war activists from the United States and Europe began arriving in Iraq this week to act as human shields in Baghdad, trying to protect orphanages, schools, and hospitals if there is a war.

Mainstream religious organizations haven't endorsed the human shield idea, but at least one Muslim group in the United States plans to participate. The Associated Press reported that Badi Ali, president of the Islamic Center of the Triad in North Carolina, will take a group of Americans — both Muslim and non-Muslim — to Baghdad to act as human shields at the end of the month. Another group, the Chicago-based Christian Peacemaker Team, will also leave for Iraq in late February.

The NCC said they hadn't taken a stance on using human shields in Iraq, but "we have been in favor of as many U.S. church groups [as possible] going to meet with the Iraqi people and pointing to the humanitarian disaster that war will bring," said Fouke.

White House Attention?

It's unclear if these tactics will have an effect on U.S. policy.

"[The anti-war movement] is one of the collective voices that the president and others have to pay attention to," said Benford. "It's forcing them [the Bush administration] to have to make a more articulate case for launching a more aggressive campaign."

When asked about the TV ad featuring Talbert — who is from the same Methodist denomination as Bush — White House spokesman Ari Fleischer replied: "The decisions that the president makes about war and peace and about whether or not force needs to be used in Iraq are based on the president's judgments as a secular leader about what is necessary to protect this country. The president is a deeply religious man. But these are decisions that the president will make based on intelligence reports, based on information that he is aware of on how to protect our country from potential attack."

"President Bush has spoken quite a bit about his religious faith," said Tom Andrews, national director of Win Without War and a former U.S. congressman from Maine. "I think it's appropriate to have someone in his denomination speaking out on this issue, saying things that might give him pause."

This wasn't the only time recently that the religious left has seemed to rub Bush's faith in his face while protesting his Iraq policy. The National Council of Churches sponsored a newspaper advertisement signed by dozens of Christian leaders, declaring, "President Bush, Jesus Changed Your Heart, Now Let Him Change Your Mind," and using Christian scripture to point out flaws with the plan to go to war.

But beyond these ads ruffling a few feathers, some say the religious anti-war movement is not having an impact on the White House.

"They are not having an influence in this administration," said Diane Knippers, president of the Washington-based Institute on Religion and Democracy, a conservative Christian organization that has condemned Christian participation in the anti-war movement. "They're trying to influence the media and some members of Congress."

Knippers may be right: The president has yet to meet with any religious leaders about Iraq. Forty-six members of Christian clergy, including 20 United Methodist bishops, wrote a letter on Jan. 30 asking for a face-to-face meeting about the possible war, but the request hasn't been met yet.

"We find it strange that he meets with conservative leaders but not with liberal groups or religious leaders on this issue," said Edgar.

His group will sponsor an ad in Congressional Quarterly soon asking for a meeting with the president.

"We want to meet with him before he goes to war," he said.

Do Church Members Follow?

It's also unclear how much the anti-war religious groups represent religious individuals. A recent USAToday/CNN/Gallup poll found 63 percent of Americans supported military action in Iraq.

"The NCC claims to represent 50 million people, but it does not represent 50 million people on this issue," said Knippers. "It's deceptive."

But Waskow disagreed.

"Something like 90 percent of Americans are members of a religious group," he said. "It's affecting an enormous amount of people."

Religious leaders also debate whether discussion about Iraq belongs in the religious realm at all.

"It is the role of Christian leaders to teach 'just war' principles," Knippers said. She said she hopes the administration takes these principles into account when making a final decision about war, but "it's a question of information and competence — and that's beyond the average bishop or cleric."

Land agreed. "They're [the religious left] more prone to pronouncements that God opposes this war, which I don't think is helpful."

This uncertainty about the role of religious groups in supporting or opposing the war was evidenced this fall, when the National Association of Evangelicals, a group that normally aligns with the Bush administration's policies, considered a resolution supporting the overthrow of Saddam through war if other means didn't work. But ultimately it was rejected by the group's board — the group didn't want to put Christian communities in Arab countries or its missionaries in danger by supporting war.

The Central Conference of American Rabbis, the rabbinic arm of the Reform movement in American Judaism, which hasn't formally stated an opinion on the war, seemed to agree with Knippers when they wrote: "We should note that the question does not ask for our opinion as to the advisability of a military strike against Iraq. That is understandable, for we rabbis hardly qualify as experts in diplomacy and defense policy."

Anti-War, Anti-Israel?

Mainstream religious Jewish groups are cautious about aligning with the anti-war movement because anti-Israel rhetoric has been common at rallies and protests. Some Jews are also worried that a war with Iraq will jeopardize Israel's security, as the Gulf War in 1991 did, when Saddam launched scud missiles into Tel Aviv.

Even prominent Jewish anti-war activists like Rabbi Waskow and the Tikkun Community's Rabbi Michael Lerner have been wary of certain factions of the anti-war movement. Waskow has written that one of the primary anti-war factions, a coalition nicknamed A.N.S.W.E.R. (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism), "is tightly controlled by a knee-jerk Marxist fraction/faction with a strong anti-Israel, anti-U.S. bent to its politics."

The members of A.N.S.W.E.R.'s steering committee include the Free Palestine Alliance, and members of the coalition include Jews Against the Occupation.

A workshop A.N.S.W.E.R. was holding at a teach-in Friday was to explain "the ways in which the creation of the Israeli state and occupation of Palestinian land has facilitated, and in fact played an integral role, in U.S. imperialism in the Middle East."

And earlier this week, Lerner received news that he had been banned from speaking at a major anti-war rally in San Francisco because he had previously criticized A.N.S.W.E.R. for its anti-Israel position.

Still, Waskow sees part of his role in the movement as educating the Jewish community about the anti-war movement.

"It's very easy for the Jewish community to define everything anti-war as anti-Israel," he said.

He said the large Jewish contingent participating in the New York march this weekend will be "an amalgam of religious and secular Jews," including members at least a dozen groups, like the Shalom Center, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, the B'nai Jeshurun congregation, and other synagogues and secular groups.

In the end it may be the anti-war movement itself that benefits the most from involvement from the religious left.

"Religious leaders have very powerful voices that people listen to," said Andrews of Win Without War. Using the voices of religious leaders in the anti-war movement is a way "to pick through the noise of typical political debate."