The National Council of Churches wants the UN involved in Iraq. So what else is new?

Am I the only person who couldn’t care less about the opinions of a bunch of preachers about policy toward Iraq ? If I don’t pay anyt attention to what Jerry Falwell thinks about same-sex marriage, why pay attention to what the National Council of Churches thinks about foreign policy?

If someone believes that the Christian tradition generally or one of the Protestant traditions specifically has something useful to teach us about how to deal with Iraq, by all means let’s hear the argument and look at the texts. I concede that the heads of denominations count as experts on what those traditions have to say.

But offhand I can’t think of a reason to expect the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church USA to have an especially valuable opinion about the proper role of the UN in the reconstruction of Iraq.

I suppose preachers have the same sort of general license to opine at random as bloggers do, but at least the bloggers don’t put out press releases about it.

Update Lots of angry and puzzled email on this one. I seem to have succeeded in making my meaning obscure.

No, I don’t have contempt for religious people, or their religious leaders. I do intensely dislike what I see as illegitimate claims of authoritative knowledge.

Of course, ministers and heads of denominations have the right to express their opinions on public issues. If they’re speaking as experts on what their religious traditions treach, then those who care about what those religious traditions teach ought to listen to them with the respect accorded to experts.

But if they’re just expressing their (inexpert) opinions on, e.g., the appropriate role of the United Nations in the reconstruction of Iraq, it’s not obvious why anyone should pay any particular attention to those views unless they’re backed with independently convincing reasons and analysis.

And yes, that applies to bloggers in general, and to me in particular. When I write about drug policy, I claim to be an expert, and to have a more informed opinion than a non-expert. (That’s not the same, of course, as claiming infallibility; since I’ve been wrong on major questions in the past, I expect that some of my current views are wrong.) But when I write about the war in Iraq, my views are worth no more than the arguments and facts that support them. When a Dan Drezner or a Juan Cole writes about Iraq, he writes as an expert, which makes his bare opinion worth something.

If some religous leaders want to say “We think, based on our reading of our sacred texts and the related traditions, that war, except maybe for war in immediate self-defense, is wrong, and therefore we think that the decision to invade Iraq was wrong,” they’re making an argument largely within their realm of expertise. Competing experts might offer competing interpretations and applications, but anyone who respects the tradition they speak from ought to give weight to their views.

But when they go on to recommend that the United Nations take on a greater role in the reconstruction of Iraq, and give no hint about how their religious tradition speaks to that sort of detail, they’ve strayed into territory where their expert writ doesn’t run. (Don’t take my word for it; read the full text of the “pastoral letter,” and note how quickly it shifts from the general proposition that war is wrong to assertions that the invasion of Iraq was motivated by narrow U.S. economic self-interest.) It is, of course, their right to speak out; but I doubt that it’s anyone’s duty to listen.

Of course, a religious leader can build a political following, and accumulate a record as a political actor that makes his or her views of general interest. By the time Martin Luther King spoke out against the War in Vietnam, he was both the leader of a national movement and someone whose leadership on civil rights had generated for him considerable moral authority even among those who were neither his followers nor his co-religionists. That meant that his views, even on topics on which he wasn’t an expert, were of general interest. Even then, his views on the broad issues of the war, or the ethics of the “pacification” program, were of much greater interest than his views about the tactics of counterinsurgency warfare.

Again, to make the personal application: I might try to get a meeting with the Secretary-General to offer my views on drug policy, and if he granted such an audience he might learn something from me he couldn’t learn from his morning newspaper. But I woudn’t ask for a meeting to discuss my views on Iraq; if I did, I would get only the horselaugh I deserved.

Second update: No, dammit, this isn’t about thinking that clergypeople aren’t smart or good people, or that their political participation is somehow unwelcome. It’s about rejecting illegitimate claims to authoritative opinion. I’d feel exactly the same way if a bunch of hard-science Nobel Laureates starting issuing statements ex cathedra about sexual ethics.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

3 thoughts on “So?”

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