Institute on Religion and Democracy
August 29, 2000
During the 1980's, countless religious leaders in this country demonstrated and agitated for an immediate freeze on all U.S. nuclear weapons production and upgrading. They opposed the placement of U.S. intermediate nuclear weapons in Europe and stridently denounced President Reagan's "Star Wars" Strategic Defense Initiative. They saw American military might as the greatest threat to world peace.
Fortunately, their advice was ignored. Even former Soviet leaders now acknowledge that U.S. military initiatives were instrumental in persuading their now defunct regime that it could not win an arms race with the U.S. The build-up of the 1980's not only paved the way for dramatic nuclear arms reduction agreements. It also helped push the crumbling Soviet Union into oblivion, making the world a safer place.
But some U.S. religious leaders are anxious to repeat their mistakes. Two new religious coalitions have emerged this Summer to demand the abolition of all nuclear weapons and to oppose any anti-missile defense for the U.S.
The "Joint Nuclear Reduction/Disarmament" initiative, based at the National Cathedral, denounces "long-term reliance on nuclear weapons" as "morally untenable and militarily unjustifiable." It calls for the "universal outlawing" of all nuclear weapons. It claims any peace based on nuclear deterrence is "corrupting" and "unworthy of civilization." It insists that the U.S. has a "special obligation" to lead the way toward the abolition of nuclear weapons.
Signers of the anti-nuclear initiative include the presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, the general secretary of the National Council of Churches, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the President of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, and the General Secretary of the U.S. Catholic Conference. All in all, these signers could lay claim to representing, however indirectly, over 100 million American church members.
Another initiative comes from the Interfaith Committee on Nuclear Disarmament, which opposes any anti-missile defense for the U.S. "Heavens No Place for Star Wars," its recent news release intoned. Twenty-eight national faith groups with memberships totaling 20 million have agreed to oppose any protection against missile attack on the U.S. Explained a spokesman: "They [religious groups] understand that NMD (National Missile Defense) presents a huge risk to the values and ethics of their respective faiths."
Supposedly missile defense will ignite a "new arms race," drain money way from "life affirming programs" such as "social services and environmental protection," and "threatens security among nations" by distracting from arms control and diplomacy. Endorsing bodies include the Episcopal Church, the National Council of Churches, the United Methodist Board of Church and Society and several Roman Catholic orders.
The first initiative is not quite as controversial as the second. The complete elimination of all nuclear weapons is a commendable if unlikely objective. Even former President Reagan said he espoused this goal. The difference between him and the religious leaders is that he believed elimination could be gained by making nuclear missiles technologically obsolete with anti-missile defenses, not by exclusive reliance on arms control and the promises of hostile governments.
The Joint Nuclear/Reduction Disarmament Statement was signed also by about 20 retired military flag officers, presumably to give it more legitimacy. But these officers, representing a tiny fraction of retired generals and admirals, hardly represent the mainstream of military opinion. They include, for example, retired Rear Admirals Eugene Carroll and Eugene LaRocque, both long affiliated with the left-wing Center for Defense Information. Still, the presence of retired military officers no doubt restrained the religious leaders from making much shriller demands.
But the Joint Nuclear/Reduction Disarmament statement is a flawed document, especially for one that claims moral authority and theological expertise. To its credit, it calls for the "verifiable" and "enforceable" outlawing and prohibition of nuclear weapons. But it says nothing as to what should happen if enforcement does not work, or whether enforcement ultimately rests with nation states or international oversight bodies.
The statement fails to acknowledge how the Cold War nuclear confrontation ended - i.e. that U.S. strength and deterrence prevailed against Soviet weakness. The statement fails to acknowledge that nuclear weapons when possessed by some nations are more dangerous than when possessed by others - i.e. few people lose sleep because Great Britain is a nuclear power. The statement treats nuclear weapons as an abstract evil that can be consigned to oblivion by a mere act of overwhelming good will. Since all of the signatories are from religious traditions that believe in human sinfulness, this assumption seems odd.
And the statement, although signed exclusively by Americans, expresses no particular concern about American security. Nor does it admit that nuclear weapons did play an incalculable role in the defense of human freedom, against both fascism and communism. This statement does not directly address missile defense. But an accompanying document that provides a "Christian perspective" in support of the statement specifically denounces missile defense and demands ratification of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which the U.S. Senate has so far failed to do, for reasons that are not insupportable.
More explicit and more extreme in its goals is the anti-missile defense statement from the Interfaith Committee on Nuclear Disarmament. Its supporters do not include the U.S. Catholic Conference, Eastern Orthodox, or even the Presbyterian officials who signed the other statement. Its signatories are weighted with left-wing mainline Protestant leaders and activist Catholic orders.
These religious leaders complain that missile defenses would violate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the former Soviet Union. But that treaty explicitly allows its signatories to withdraw after giving six months notice. The religious leaders complain that missile defenses would be monstrously expensive, citing a prediction of $60 billion over 15 years. But this figure would amount to much less than one percent of the annual federal budget, a tiny fraction of the price tag for the social programs that these religious leaders worry are threatened.
And these religious leaders are confident that arms control agreements and diplomacy are adequate substitutes for missile defenses. But how will either protect against accidental launches or terrorist states? They do not explain.
Permeating this document and its supporting documents is a not very vague anti-Americanism. These religious leaders are distressed that the U.S. might have missile defenses while others do not. The world would be at the mercy of hegemonic America!
"While it may give those of us privileged enough to live in the U.S. a so-called security blanket, it would strike fear into the hearts of the rest of the world's inhabitants," warns an official from the Church of the Brethren. "A nation with NMD has no accountability. It may strike without fear of retaliation, attack on a whim." It is impressive how the image of Americas as a genocidal imperialist still persists on the Religious Left.
Of course, the religious leaders opposed to missile defense also desire the U.S. to divest itself of all nuclear weapons. So a nuclear-armed state that refuses to play by their rules could threaten the U.S. without fear of severe retaliation. The religious leaders do not seem concerned about this possibility.
For these religious leaders, the politics of arms control is more a matter of blind faith than thoughtful theological reasoning. Their pleas for a nuclear freeze 15 years ago were thankfully rejected. Their advice again will hopefully be disregarded. But members of the denominations they represent might question how and why these officials claim to speak for them.