A Primer on the Religious Left
By: Dr. Paul Kengor
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, March 31, 2008
Dr. Paul Kengor is the executive director of the Center for Vision & Values. In this interview, he asks Dr. Earl Tilford about the Religious Left. Dr. Tilford, a Grove City College professor, is a military expert and historian, a war veteran, and a contributor to the upcoming April 10-11 conference, “Church & State in 2008,” to be held on the campus of Grove City College.
Dr. Paul Kengor:
Dr. Tilford, we are hitting a variety of faith-related issues for our
fourth annual conference, “Church & State in 2008.” One that is
crucial to the current political landscape, and particularly to
American foreign policy, is the war in Iraq. The media has made a big
deal of how President George W. Bush’s faith allegedly influences his
actions, particularly related to the war. The press also gets worked up
about the religious right. Yet, lest we forget, there is a religious
left out there. Who is that religious left, and what is it saying about
the war in Iraq?
Dr. Earl Tilford: The
"religious left" is at least as difficult to define as the religious
right. There are conservative Christians who are pacifists. There are
other Christians who are theologically conservative but who support
pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli positions. Today's religious left
probably is larger and more influential in American politics than the
religious right, which the left tarred with a neo-conservative brush.
There are Protestants, Catholics, and Jews on the religious left.
to 9/11, the Protestant religious left—groups like the Presbyterian
Church USA's Witherspoon Society and the More Light
Presbyterians—focused on "social-justice" issues like gay rights and
gay ordination with a secondary interest in continuing support by PCUSA
for unrestricted access to abortion. They also supported economic
issues like better pay for migrant workers. Their primary military
concern, especially groups like Presbyterian Peacemaking, focused on
decreasing defense spending, as a concomitant to increasing social
spending, and on closing the "School of the Americas," which they
dubbed the “School of Torture." Members of the Presbyterian Peacemaking
Program tended then, and now, to be fairly naive individuals with a
consistently anti-military bias. Catholic groups tended to support
social-welfare issues while remaining quiet on—or opposed to—pro-choice
and gay-rights causes.
Kengor: How did they react to September 11, 2001?
the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the World Council of Churches and
leaders from PCUSA, the United Methodist Church, and other mainline
American Protestant denominations, urged the Bush administration to
seek an alternative to military action against the Taliban regime in
Afghanistan. From mid-2002, when the Bush administration began to
consider military action against Iraq, the Catholic and Protestant
left—groups like Pax Christi and the Witherspoon
Society—opposed any military action against Iraq. A Mennonite group,
the Christian Peacemaker Teams, sent a delegation to Baghdad to meet
with Saddam Hussein. Members offered to serve as human shields,
stationing themselves at mosques, schools, and hospitals to deter
American bombing. They would have been perfectly safe in attaching
themselves at those places, since the United States does not target
religious sites, schools, and hospitals. Nevertheless, they scored
their propaganda points.
religious left has consistently opposed the war. It has supported
anti-war demonstrations, called for national vigils against the war,
put up blog sites that supported Cindy Sheehan, Code Pink, etc. Many of
the "movers and shakers" among the anti-war religious left are retreads
from the Vietnam anti-war movement.
Kengor: Give us an example of a new religious left group that has been spawned by Bush administration foreign policy.
No2Torture group lobbies for the "constitutional rights" of terror
suspects being held in Guantanamo and for an end to all forms of
physical coercion, especially water boarding, which has been used very
rarely (and to good effect), in any event. No2Torture accuses the Bush
administration of allowing the CIA to torture suspected terrorists in
third-country prisons. Reports from members of Christian Peacemaker
Teams in Iraq emphasized supposed U.S. atrocities and the suffering of
innocent Iraqis at the hands of Americans. No2Torture and Christian
Peacemaker Teams consistently ignore the very real torture inflicted on
Iraqis by terrorist groups.
The religious left consistently portrays the United States as a behemoth running amok in the world.
Kengor: I have
two quotes to share with you regarding President Bush and the war in
Iraq. The first is from a petition of 125 religious left leaders, which
ran in the December 2002 New York Times: “President Bush: Jesus
changed your heart. Now let Him change your mind. Your war would
violate the teachings of Jesus Christ. It is inconceivable that Jesus
Christ, our Lord and Savior and the Prince of Peace, would support this
another quote—from Jim Winkler of the United Methodist Church, February
26, 2003: “I cannot profess Christ as my Savior and simultaneously
support preemptive war. I can deny Jesus and support war but I will not.”
Are these quotes typical of the religious left you’re describing?
Rather typical. I do not presume to know whether Jesus Christ supports
Operation Iraqi Freedom or not. I don't think we humans can presume to
know those things. We do know that Jesus said to "turn the other cheek"
to those who offend you and "to love your enemy as you do yourself."
Those admonitions trouble many Christians, and they should. Jesus is
the "Prince of Peace," and when Jesus returns to establish God's
kingdom on earth, humanity finally will know peace. Until then, we live
in a fallen world.
expect, however, the religious left will keep up this line of argument.
The counter-argument is that Jesus always sought to protect the weak
and defend the defenseless. Iraq in 2003 was hardly defenseless and the
Iraqi people were being subjected to the abuses of a violently inhumane
Kengor: Ironically, while these liberal Christians claim that George W. Bush is arrogant for allegedly
claiming that he knows God’s will for Iraq—assuming he has made that
claim—they seem to be claiming to know God’s will themselves, don’t
I sincerely hope George Bush does not operate on the assumption that he
is on "a mission from God." Many on the religious left and religious
right tend to think they have a very special relationship with the
Almighty. I fear both.
Kengor: How can either side be certain it knows God’s will in this situation?
Difficult issues, those dealing with war, capital punishment, abortion,
and euthanasia should always be approached thoughtfully and
prayerfully. And whatever actions we take, we should take them hoping
that we are acting in accordance with God's will. However, I would
suggest that it is the height of hubris for anyone to assume he or she
has a lock on the truth or some special insight into the will of God.
We should always hold out the possibility that, being human, our
understanding of God is incomplete. That's a proposition that should
apply to all Christians of whatever denomination, orientation or
political/theological persuasion—"right" or "left."
said, as a Calvinist, I believe God is always in charge. Whatever
position anyone holds, that person holds within the will of God. Does
that mean God's will supports a particular position? … Not necessarily.
But nothing happens that is contrary to God's will. To believe
otherwise is to deny the sovereignty of God. No political leader,
whether an Adolf Hitler or George Bush, a Nikita Khrushchev or Hillary
Clinton, will ever thwart the will of the Almighty.It may be difficult for us to reconcile ourselves to the reality that God's will may differ from our own.
Tilford, in instances like the war in Iraq, the Christian left quickly retreats
to a defense of “Jesus was the Prince of Peace,” or “Jesus would never
support war.” That said, nearly every president, whether a Christian
Democrat or Christian Republican, has sent troops into battle. This
includes Christian Democrats like Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Lyndon
Johnson, John Kennedy, Harry Truman, FDR, and Woodrow Wilson—i.e., all
of them. Is the religious left consistent in its opposition to war? In
other words, was the religious left as hard on Bill Clinton for the
Balkans or FDR for WWII as it has been on Bush for Iraq?
Dr. Earl Tilford:
The Christian left tended to ignore Bill Clinton's actions in the
Balkans, perhaps in part because U.S. policy supported Muslim victims
against draconian Serbian Christian elements avowedly seeking to
ethnically cleanse the Balkans of its Albanian Kosovar (Muslim)
minority. President Clinton also carried out the war in a way that was
seemingly pristine. For most people, images of bombs hitting targets
from 15,000 feet are more akin to a video game. Had Clinton done what
was truly necessary to stop the carnage, like put in ground forces,
those images of war would have been much more galling. Clinton made
"politically correct" war, so the left didn't have to react adversely.
It also wasn't all that effective.
World War II, only a small minority of traditional pacifists refused
military service. The nature of the enemy in World War II was very
different and America was also different. The religious left offered
substantial opposition to the Vietnam War during the Johnson
administration and did so quite adamantly while (on the plus side)
simultaneously supporting Lyndon Johnson's initiatives on civil rights.
The “gray beards” of the current anti-war movement earned their spurs
in the Vietnam-era anti-war movement.
Kengor: Many of these religious left groups have made an almost seamless
transition from protesting American policy during the Cold War to
protesting American policy during the War on Terror. Which groups
appear to have made that shift? The World Council of Churches? The
National Council of Churches? Others?
To varying degrees, they all have. Since the mid-1960s—the beginning of
the Vietnam anti-war movement—members of the religious left skewed
toward the political left. As their religious commitment to doctrinal
and theological certainties decreased, they substituted faith for
various social and political causes, like the Civil Rights movement of
the 1960s and the anti-war movements of the 1960s and since 9/11. In
both eras, the religious left's focus has been on "America as behemoth."
Kengor: We need to emphasize that these groups were (are) not necessarily
pro-communist or pro-Islamist. Yet, often they have unwittingly,
unintentionally supported the bad intentions of the other side. Do you
The religious left calls itself "progressive." Every communist was or
is a progressive, even if not all progressives are communists. Saddam
Hussein was a fascist dictator. There are elements of fascism in
Islamic fundamentalism. Religious progressives are not so much
"pro-fascist" or "pro-Islamist" as they are hyper-critical of American
society and culture. The multi-cultural inclinations of these religious
progressives make them as susceptible to accepting the criticisms
leveled against American culture by the Islamist propaganda machine as
they were by the Soviet propaganda machine. From Stalin to Ahmadinejad,
our enemies are depending on them to be what Vladimir Lenin called
Kengor: Generally speaking, the Christian left is often accused by the
Christian right of being anti-Israel because of its alleged
pro-Palestinian sympathies. Is that a fair charge?
think it is entirely fair. In my view, groups like Presbyterian
Peacemaking, the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation, and
Christian Peacemaker Teams consistently take a pro-Palestinian and
anti-Israeli stance. So does the leadership of the mainline Protestant
Kengor: You not only write about these individuals but have courageously gone
to their conferences to engage them in dialogue. Have they been
receptive to your presence?
appeared one time on a panel sponsored by the very fair and evenly
balanced Institute for Christian-Jewish Understanding at Muhlenberg
College back in November 2006. On that occasion I presented a paper on
the previous summer's fighting between Israel and Hezbollah. The two
critics of my paper attacked me for using "the language of violence" in
my paper. Well, the paper was about military action. They were
respectful enough. The audience, consisting heavily of Jews, was very
religious left, very much like the religious right, tends to hold
conferences which are self-affirming and non-permissive of differing
points of view. Both right and left are guilty of this. The American
academic tradition is to consider and assess all points of view.
Kengor: Do they agree to disagree? Are they charitable to you?
I’ll give you just one example to answer your question. A few years
back, after I criticized the Christian Peacemaker Teams some of their
sympathizers sent emails to a number of my colleagues urging them to
disavow me or get me fired. But then, on occasion, representatives from
the Christian right have written urging the same thing.
Narrow-mindedness, from whatever quarter, has no place in the American
academic tradition. I condemn censorship and any other form of
restraint on academic freedom.
Kengor: Dr. Tilford, thanks for talking to us.
Tilford: Thank you.
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