This op-ed is surely one of the most perplexing in recent months. Charles Marsh, a professor of religion at UVa, with an anti-war record and a Christian pacifist history that is (unfortunately; see below) invisible via several Google searches, wrings his hands at the “Faustian bargain” by which his fellow evangelicals’ tub-thumping support for George Bush and his war bought them “greater political power than at any time in [their] history”, at a cost of ” the credibility of [their] moral and evangelistic witness in the world.”
Wow. What are we supposed to think about this? On the one hand, the insights are valuable, but it is a pity they took so long to claim a wide forum. One doesn’t want to be like the minister who berates his congregation for being so small, or tenant advocates who rail against the landlords who are, after all, the only people providing any housing at all…
Marsh, most ironically, is the author of an autobiographical history of his father, a Baptist minister in Laurel, Mississippi, who grappled “honestly but inadequately” with the racial conflicts of the sixties.
The inside story appears to be the attention he gives to John Stott, who (Marsh agrees with David Brooks) would be elected pope if evangelicals had one, and who ran afoul of Andrew Sullivan last year :
Unlike the Pope John Paul II, who said that invading Iraq would violate Catholic moral teaching and threaten “the fate of humanity,” or even Pope Benedict XVI, who has said there were “not sufficient reasons to unleash a war against Iraq,” Mr. Stott did not speak publicly on the war. But in a recent interview, he shared with me his abiding concerns.
“Privately, in the days preceding the invasion, I had hoped that no action would be taken without United Nations authorization,” he told me. “I believed then and now that the American and British governments erred in proceeding without United Nations approval.”
I guess Stott would take Pius XII as a papal template. Pius XII had a very hard time figuring out how specifically and directly the church might oppose the Nazis (accommodation with the Fascists had been arranged by his predecessor in 1929). (Privately, no doubt, he deeply hoped that evil would abate.) The issue was so complex, and Pius’ understanding so subtle and intricate, that six million Jews, gays, Roma, and others, plus ten times as many soldiers and civilians, were dead by the time the church had it worked out enough to put its body on the line. (Perhaps a future too horrible to contemplate will reveal to us what degree of official evil would suffice for a country to be put under the interdict.)
Eugenio Pacelli is being touted for sainthood, and his policies regarding the Nazis and Fascists before and during the war are vigorously debated; still, this is a long way from, say, “he risked the lives of the righteous, and the wealth and privilege of the church, by standing against evil at every moment.” He certainly navigated the church to political power in the cold war era.
Maybe the evangelical war fans will find a way to turn their spectacular political ascendancy to achieve some wonderful Christian end, and we will learn to view the thousands of American and tens of thousand of Iraqi dead as the sad but unavoidable cost of navigating the divine through a tricky secular world. When it happens, I hope the wonderful end is more thrilling than the looting of the poor by the rich, the trashing of God’s creation, and the humiliation of the science God equipped us to practice, that we see unfolding so far.
Or maybe the moral authority of religious leaders is already so crippled that throwing holy water on the troops from the sidewalk as they march to war is all they can really do.
Update: Prof. Marsh has pointed out to me, and very graciously:
My church is one of the few in Charlottesville that opposed the war in the spring of 2003. I have been making arguments against the war for three years–in my UVA lectures, in public events around the nation, and in occasional writings. My book “The Beloved Community” is an argument for Christian pacifism. I have lost friends over this war.
Before writing the original version of this post, I googled Prof. Marsh along with Iraq, war, and several other keywords and found nothing to indicate that the cited op-ed wasn’t his first public statement on the war and the evangelical cheering it on. I’m pleased to note the history he provides above.