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Churchgoers Most Supportive of the War By: Mark D. Tooley
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, May 01, 2006

The recent headline of a Gallup poll was revealing:  "Protestants and Frequent Churchgoers Most Supportive of Iraq War; Least supportive are non-Christians and people with no religion."  This poll, released last month, gained almost no media attention.

Gallup reports that church-going Protestants most support the Iraq War, with Catholic churchgoers being less supportive but still more supportive than non-churchgoers.  The most negative towards the war are the non-religious, sixty percent of whom think the
war was mistake.  In contrast, only 41 percent of church going Protestants who think the war was mistaken.

Even among Republicans, churchgoers were more supportive than non-church going Republicans.  The same variance was true among political independents, who were likelier to support the war the more often they attend church.

Overall, according to Gallup, 44 percent of weekly churchgoers in America think the Iraq War was a mistake.  In contrast, 62 percent of non-church goers think it was a mistake.  Only 15 percent of Republicans who attend church weekly think the war was a mistake.   Eighty-one percent of Democrats who never attend church think the war was a mistake.

That's a 64 percent spread on war attitudes between Republican regular churchgoers and Democratic secularists.  Why such a gap in support for the war based on religiosity?

Some of the harshest war opponents are leftist church officials who profess to speak on behalf of mainline denominations.  The chief lobbyist for the church to which President Bush and Vice President Cheney belong has blamed the "unjust and illegal" war on Bush's "lies," Israel, oil interests and American arrogance.

"High crimes have been committed against the people of the United States and Iraq," Jim Winkler of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society has charged.  "We were led into war under false premises."

Similarly, the National Council of Churches, claiming to represent over 40 million American church members, last July called the Iraq War "dishonorable."  According to the church council, the "freedom promised in the toppling of a dictator has been replaced by the humiliation of occupation and the violence of a civil war."

Clearly, pro-war Protestants aren't receiving encouragement from mainline church officials.  Is the much-ballyhooed Religious Right then responsible for war support among churchgoers?


Caricatures of religious conservatives portray them as reflexively supportive of President Bush and of the war.

In a New York Times op-ed earlier this year, University of Virginia religion professor Charles Marsh tried to portray the Religious Right as ardently pro-war.  Marsh critically surmised that religious conservatives support Bush on the war because they see naively him as a "real brother in Christ" who "has discerned that God's will is for our nation to be at war against Iraq."

Marsh noted that a strong majority of U.S. evangelical Protestants continue to support the war, which is no doubt true.  But he portrayed evangelical leaders as the culprits.

In fact, conservative religious leaders, in contrast to liberal church prelates, have been mostly reticent about the war.  No doubt most are supportive, but their political emphasis remains on social issues like abortion and same-sex unions.  Websites of major conservative religious groups, such as the Family Research Council, barely mention Iraq.

Why then are churchgoers the likeliest to back the Iraq War?  Former Navy Secretary James Webb, himself now a war critic, explains in his recent best seller "Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America," that American evangelicals are disproportionately Celtic and warlike. The Scots-Irish culture that predominates in the U.S. South and lower mid-west has always been pro-military.

But the explanation for war support among churchgoers is probably not entirely genealogical.  Gallup shows that increased religious practice across several traditions, and not just among southern Evangelicals, indicates likelier support for the Iraq War.

So try this explanation.  Persons of traditional religious belief, with transcendent faith and hope about eternity, have cause to be more patient with set-backs, delayed gratification, risk-taking, long-term suffering, and the prospect of distant success.  They are also cognizant of the power of human sin, and appreciate the limits of the best human endeavors.

Bush, the Methodist from Texas of Scots-Irish roots, fits the "Born Fighting" stereotype of the Jacksonian war hawk.  But, if Gallup is right, other types of Protestants, along with Catholics and Jews, can also understand the need for sacrifice, persistence, and a vision beyond the typical news cycles.

The third anniversary of the U.S.-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein has rattled many former war supporters and confirmed the fears of war opponents.  Contrary to the stereotypes, the faithful can often face the moral complexities of politics and war better than the secularist utopians.

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Mark D. Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy. He is the author of Taking Back the United Methodist Church.

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