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Profile: Silent Evangelical Support Of Bush's Proposed War Against Iraq

Morning Edition: February 26, 2003

Evangelicals for War

BOB EDWARDS, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Bob Edwards.

The Vatican is keeping Iraq in the diplomatic spotlight. Pope John Paul meets tomorrow with Spain's prime minister, who supports the US stand against Iraq. Yesterday the Vatican's foreign minister said pre-emptive war against Iraq would be a crime against peace. Similar public pronouncements have been made by American religious organizations. But the Bush administration has strong support from evangelical Christians, who believe war is justified, but don't take public stands. NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY reporting:

Recently the National Council of Churches ran a newspaper ad that said, `President Bush, Jesus changed your heart. Now let him change your mind.' There, in two sentences, a pithy mix of politics and theology. But if that captures the view of the faithful, then something doesn't add up because most Americans say they go to church regularly, and most Americans say they would support a US invasion of Iraq. Richard Cizik at the National Association of Evangelicals explains it this way.

Mr. RICHARD CIZIK (National Association of Evangelicals): I think they're probably the silent majority, in as much as they trust this president, George W. Bush, and his assessment of the nature of the threat, but for as many different reasons as there are hours in the day, they don't speak out.

Unidentified Man #1: Good morning.

Unidentified Man #2: Good morning.

HAGERTY: Whether they're a majority or not, some of these silent supporters are early risers, filing into a church before 6:30 on a recent morning for breakfast, prayer and inspiration. The men--white, middle class and socially conservative--are members of an enormous evangelical church in Virginia. The church asks not to be identified because it doesn't want to be involved in politics.

Unidentified Man #3: And let's open our time together with prayer. Heavenly Father, incline our hearts this morning...

HAGERTY: The men bow their heads and pray for their families, for the nation, for the men and women who may soon be deployed to Iraq. And while these men say they don't want a war, they also say they strongly support the president. Parishioner Michael Wible says it jives with his theology. `Of course Jesus preached a gospel of peace,' one of the main arguments that more liberal churches use to oppose a war, but he says...

Mr. MICHAEL WIBLE (Parishioner): The same suffering Messiah is also in the book of Revelation going to be the conquering Messiah. So we have the same God, who died for our sins, is also the God of justice. Just read Revelation, read Ezekiel, read Isaiah.

HAGERTY: `Often in the Bible,' he says, `God sanctions and even encourages war and invasion.' Will Townsend, one of the pastors at this church, is persuaded not just by the content of the Bible, but by the character of this particular president. `George W. Bush has described himself as a born-again Christian. He would fit right into this church. And,' Townsend says, `being on the same spiritual wavelength counts for a lot.'

Pastor WILL TOWNSEND: Would I follow a Muslim when they're not in line with my beliefs? Absolutely not. So, yeah, the idea that he is a Christian, that he is listening to the word of the Lord, that he's asking the Lord's wisdom, that he's saying, `Guide me,' OK, yeah, I mean, I trust that.

HAGERTY: Indeed, some religious leaders are uncomfortable that Mr. Bush often wears his theology like a badge, but Richard Cizik says in doing so, the president rallies his evangelical supporters.

Mr. CIZIK: Evangelicals resonate to George Bush's leadership because of the language that he uses, which is often theological.

HAGERTY: As when the president cataloged the abuses of Saddam Hussein's regime in his State of the Union address.

SOUNDBITE OF STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Electronic shock, burning with hot irons, dripping acid on the skin, mutilation with electric drills, cutting out tongues, and rape. If this is not evil, then evil has no meaning.

SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE

Mr. CIZIK: He talks about Saddam Hussein as evil.

HAGERTY: Richard Cizik.

Mr. CIZIK: Evangelicals believe that, in fact, evil does come from the depravity of the human heart, and there are evil people, and Saddam Hussein is one. And so the language which Bush has used resonates in the heart and the minds of the American evangelical.

HAGERTY: Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention says even if Bush were not a born-again Christian, evangelicals are inclined to fall behind rather than stand against their government in times of war. Why? Because according to the New Testament, he says, it is God who places people in positions of governmental authority.

Mr. RICHARD LAND (Southern Baptist Convention): Romans 13 makes it very clear that, `God ordained the civil magistrate to punish those who do evil and to reward those do that which is right.' So, clearly, the civil magistrate is ordained by God to use various means, up to and including lethal force, to punish evildoers.

HAGERTY: The Southern Baptists are one of the only conservative denominations that have openly supported President Bush. Why haven't others? Well, back at the evangelical church in Virginia, parishioner Randy Falt(ph) says no one wants to promote war, especially one with religious overtones.

Mr. RANDY FALT (Parishioner): We don't want to give the impression that, you know, we're a bunch of warmongers and want to go out and conquer, in this case, Islam to replace it with Christianity. That's not the intent. The intent is to protect us.

HAGERTY: And while evangelical churches often speak out on cultural or social issues, like abortion and homosexuality, they generally keep mum about international politics. One reason, says Pastor Will Townsend, is that this type of church focuses on bringing people to a personal faith in Jesus Christ.

Pastor TOWNSEND: If I'm preaching politics, right away those people that aren't in line with what I'm preaching are not going to come through the door. So, you know, a good evangelical church that wants to bring people through the door is not going to do that.

HAGERTY: Moreover, conservative Christians are genuinely ambivalent about any possible American action because of the potential backlash against their brethren abroad. Richard Cizik at the National Association of Evangelicals says they worry that Christian missionaries working in Iraq and elsewhere, as well as a half-million Iraqi Christians, could come under attack.

Mr. CIZIK: Because in many Middle Eastern countries, the word `American' and `Christian' are synonymous, and those angry with the United States might say, `We can't do anything about the planes up there, but here's people who are linked to Americans.'

HAGERTY: Which is one reason that many evangelicals are so upset with statements by Jerry Falwell, who recently called Muslims `terrorists,' or by Pat Robertson, who made this comment on his television show.

Mr. PAT ROBERTSON: (From television program) This is worse than the Nazis. Adolf Hitler was bad, but what the Muslims want to do to the Jews is worse.

HAGERTY: In recent months, there's been a spike in violence against Christians: missionaries attacked in Yemen, Lebanon, the Philippines and India; Christian churches attacked in Nigeria, Algeria, Indonesia and Pakistan. Richard Mouw is president of Fuller Theological Seminary, and he's one of the few outspoken evangelical opponents of the war.

Mr. RICHARD MOUW (President, Fuller Theological Seminary): And while we can't posit one-to-one correspondence between something that some prominent televangelist says about Islam, we can certainly worry that those inflammatory statements stimulate further antagonism on the part of Muslim extremists.

HAGERTY: A major reason evangelical churches don't speak out is that many of the biggest ones don't have a platform to do so, says Michael Cromartie, an expert on evangelicalism at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Consider that church in Virginia. It's got several thousand attenders, but it's an independent church, unaffiliated with any denomination. Cromartie says these independent churches have numbers, but no national clout.

Mr. MICHAEL CROMARTIE (Ethics and Public Policy Center): There is no central bureaucracy in Wheaton, Illinois, or Colorado Springs where one can say, `The mainline churches have issued a negative critique of the president's foreign policy. We would like to issue a countercritique,' because there's nobody to call a meeting.

HAGERTY: But even if nobody's calling a meeting or making pronouncements, Cromartie says, the White House knows they're out there representing millions upon millions of silent supporters.

Mr. CROMARTIE: Just cold political calculus tells you if you had 50 million evangelicals rallying in downtown Washington against the war, it would cause great disturbance, but they're not there and they won't be.

HAGERTY: And so the White House is counting on their support, as it inches ever closer to a war with Iraq. Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News, Washington.

EDWARDS: The time is 19 minutes past the hour.

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