President Bush’s decision to attack Iraq was not made without input from American religious leaders.
On January 16, when President Bush ordered the United States to lead the Allied air strike against Iraq, Billy Graham spent the night at the White House. The day before, as the United Nations’ deadline for Saddam Hussein expired, among the high-level phone calls coming in and out of the White House were two to religious leaders. The President spoke with Senate Chaplain Richard Halverson and Edmond Browning, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, George and Barbara Bush’s denomination.
According to Leigh Ann Metzger of the White House Office of Public Liaison, throughout the crisis, “the President has been in consultation and prayer with personal friends who are ministers and national religious leaders.” Metzger said her office has been keeping the President informed about the activities and opinions of religious groups surrounding the situation. At press time, the outcome of the Persian Gulf war remained uncertain. Reaction from mainline churches was generally critical of the use of force in Iraq, while evangelical leaders had a variety of comments on the situation.
Evangelist Billy Graham, a long-time personal friend of Bush, emphasized the complexity of the situation. “No sane person wants war. At the same time, it has well been said that there is an ethical responsibility that goes with power, and sometimes it becomes necessary to fight the strong in order to protect the weak,” he said. Whatever the final outcome of the hostilities, Graham said, God has ultimate control. Graham said the world will never be the same after this confrontation in the Middle East because of its strategic location. Not only does the crisis affect every person economically, politically, and socially, but the situation has major spiritual implications as well, he said. “These events are happening in that part of the world where history began, and, the Bible says, where history as we know it will some day end,” Graham said. “I believe there are some spiritual forces at work—both good and evil—that are beyond our comprehension.” In addition to offering comfort and counsel to Bush, Graham participated in Washington-area religious services focused on the conflict.
Television broadcaster Pat Robertson said the use of force in the region was inevitable from the start. “No one in his right mind desires domestic police shootouts or wars between nations, but unless murderers, kidnapers, assassins, and international thugs are brought to justice, the rule of law will cease to exist,” he wrote in his Pat Robertson’s Perspective. “The U.S. has a job to do, and, as unpleasant and painful as it may seem, the sooner we get it over with, the better.”
On his “700 Club” program, Robertson said justice, not peace, is the main issue. “We hate war, but justice has to come,” he said. On the same show, the former presidential candidate said he believes Saddam Hussein must have been suffering from a “satanic delusion” that propelled him to bring world events to this point.
Eschatologically, Robertson said he believes it is a possibility that we are “coming to the end of this age.” The prophecies in Isaiah 13 and Zechariah 14 may be key, he said.
Myron Augsburger, president of the Christian College Coalition, says negotiation, not force, has to be the way of the future. “I have a deep concern about an approach that threatens a possible holocaust rather than asks how justice is best achieved,” he said. “The world needs to know that we are concerned about justice, not simply about oil and economic issues that meet our American interests,” the Mennonite pastor said.
In addition, Augsburger said he is concerned about the long-term mission and evangelism effects of the confrontation. “I’m afraid that what we do now could set back Christian/Muslim relations as deeply as the Crusades did,” he said. “For evangelicals especially, we need to face what it means to destroy those for whom Christ died.”
Augsburger said there is a special role for the church of being caring and compassionate in the midst of this situation. “The networking of the Christian church around the world must lift the principles of the kingdom higher than those of nationalism,” he said.
World Vision president Robert Seiple said he is concerned that the human element of the crisis not be ignored. “The issues of war are always more sterile than the faces of conflict,” Seiple said. “But make no mistake, the faceless rationales of lifestyles, the price of oil, economic considerations, and the New World Order all become razor-thin reasons that lose all logic when the first shot is fired in anger.”
An aviator with the First Marine Corps Air Wing in Vietnam, Seiple said he “cannot forget the faces of those traumatized by war.… Nor do I, as president of a Christian relief-and-development organization, forget the faces of young war victims, the children who have lost the will to talk and smile,” he said.
Although Bush said this conflict will not be another Vietnam War, Seiple said he sees “frightening similarities” between the Gulf Crisis and Vietnam. “We don’t seem to want to know, nor will we avail ourselves of the resources that will allow us to know, the Arab mind any more than we understood the Vietnamese,” he said. Seiple’s son, Chris, is a second lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps.
According to Billy Melvin, executive director of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), his organization will not take an official position on the course of action this nation is pursuing in the Persian Gulf. “The denominational churches associated with the NAE are very much concerned about the situation … but we have always been cautious about commenting on matters that are the proper concern of the civil government,” Melvin said.
“We are not military strategists or experts on international relations, so our churches are concentrating on what they do best: committing the situation and its implications to prayer, giving spiritual care to U.S. servicemen and-women through our chaplains, and ministering to their families here at home,” he added.
The NAE’s Washington Office on Public Affairs director Robert Dugan said that if he were a member of Congress, he would have voted last month to support the President’s request to allow the use of force in the region. “I think most evangelicals would conclude that while it is an awesome responsibility to have the world looking to the United States to lead this charge, … it does meet the just-war criteria,” Dugan said.
Dugan noted that both Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have among the worst religious-liberty records in the world with regard to the treatment of Christianity. “One hopes that in our rising to defend these nations, there might be a little more tolerance for Christianity in the years to come,” he said.
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