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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.

Prior 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?

Tilford: In 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.

The 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.

Tilford: The 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 proposed attack.”

Here’s 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?

Tilford: 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.

I 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 dictatorship.

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 they?

Tilford: 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?

Tilford: 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."

That 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.

Kengor: Dr. 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.

During 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?

Tilford: 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 agree?

Tilford: 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 "useful idiots."

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?

Tilford: I 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 denominations.

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?

Tilford: I 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 friendly.

The 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?

Tilford: 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.

Paul Kengor is author of God and George W. Bush (HarperCollins, 2004), professor of political science, and executive director of the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. His latest book is The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan's Top Hand (Ignatius Press, 2007).

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