While our nation’s chief warriors studied the writings of Erwin Rommel, the notorious “Desert Fox,” to learn how to conduct a war in the sand, our President and his policy advisers were paying attention to another aspect of military history—the Christian church’s teaching on the “just war,” the limits and conditions established by Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, and other important theologians.

The President has used just-war language in addresses (such as his January speech to the National Religious Broadcasters convention). And, according to news reports, he carefully examined the just-war criteria with close friends and advisers in discussing plans for responding to the invasion of Kuwait.

Mr. Bush has taken a gradualist approach to the ethical question of war (“There are steps or gradations in ethical responses between the clearly right and the obviously wrong.”). Others take an absolutist approach (“Never, ever wage war.”) Both ways of trying to do what is right have been used by Christians; both have strengths and weaknesses.

Ethical absolutism challenges the believer to develop moral stamina to stand against the crowd. It tends to breed people with stiff backbones, a much-needed characteristic, especially when it focuses on areas in which the Bible has spoken unequivocally. Unfortunately, absolutism does not give people practice in making moral distinctions. Thus, one unintended side effect of absolutist ethics (although certainly not a tragic flaw) is that young people who grow up with strict prohibitions seem to have a difficult time learning how to make their own ethical distinctions. (How many people do you know who were raised in an antimovie ethos and will now watch anything on their VCRs?) Another unfortunate aspect (although not a fatal flaw) of absolutism is that it can be so easily be dismissed by society at large. (For example, in a pluralist democratic society, the pacifist’s idealism offers little guidance to the public officials who are charged with superintending the legitimate use of force.)

The strength of gradualism is that it can be used to place limits on tragic but necessary evil. Just-war theory is a case in point. The weakness of gradualism is that it can be used to excuse evil by making it appear necessary. Just-war theory is a case in point.

The President generally has shown himself to be more concerned with limiting evil than excusing it. For example, on the domestic front he has consistently stated that he wanted exceptions in any antiabortion legislation for rape, incest, and threat to the life of the mother. And in international relations, he has made distinctions between, on the one hand, Iraq’s aggression against Iran (a nation perfectly capable of taking care of itself), and on the other hand, Iraq’s military aggression and human-rights abuses against a largely defenseless Kuwait.

The Persian Gulf War has not been entirely popular in this country. But the debate has been both prudential and moral. According to news sources, the President took his religious faith with ever-increasing seriousness as the January 15 deadline approached. Both before and after that date, he vigorously injected the traditional moral language of the just-war tradition into his private and public statements about armed conflict. And since the hostilities began, the military alliance has made a clear attempt to follow the moral high road and avoid targeting civilians.

Does this mean we are back on the road to public moral discourse in this country? Will the language of right and wrong creep back into public debate? Will the church, therefore, be able to address policy issues in its native vocabulary? We pray that it does. Perhaps one salutary effect of this tragic conflict will be that our nation recovers its ability to address policy issues in terms of right and wrong, rather than putative personal rights; that our policy makers will abandon pragmatism for courage. We pray and we hope.

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