This editorial originally appeared in the April 8, 1991, issue of Christianity Today.

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 anti-movie 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.

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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.

This editorial originally appeared in the April 8, 1991, issue of Christianity Today.

Related Elsewhere

For more coverage on the current conflict, commentary and thought on just war, or Christian debate, see our CTWar in Iraq archive.

A downloadable Bible study on the implications of war with Iraq is available at These unique Bible studies use articles from current issues of Christianity Today to prompt thought-provoking discussions in adult Sunday school classes or small groups.

Other CT Classics form the first war with Iraq include:

CT Classic: War Cry | As 1991's Gulf War began, a Christianity Today editorial said the church's best weapon was tearful prayer. (March 24, 2003)
CT Classic: Weeping over Baghdad | Desert Storm cost Iraq thousands of lives. At its conclusion, a Christianity Today editorial called for the church to deal with the living souls that remained. (March 21, 2003)
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Previous Christianity Today articles and commentary on the current war with Iraq include:

War Isn't Being Waged From the Pulpit | Most clergy avoid blanket statements on war. (March 24, 2003)
What George Bush's Favorite Devotional Writer Says About War | "War is the most damnably bad thing," wrote Oswald Chambers. (March 24, 2003)
Peacemakers Seek to Show War from Point of View of Iraqi Civilians | Six Christian Peacemaker Team members remain in Iraq as bombs drop. (March 21, 2003)
Speaking Out: Where Do We Go From Here? | Now that the bombs are falling, we'll need to repair Iraq—and our nation's moral standing. (March 21, 2003)
War Could Reduce Holy Land's Christian Presence | Palestinian bishop fears current hostilities could continue a trend that sees Christians forced out of the area altogether. (March 21, 2003)
Weblog: Will War Breed Hate Crimes Against Muslims, Christians, or Both? | Plus: PCUSA court criticizes leader but dismisses charges, and other stories from online sources around the world. (March 20, 2003)
Standing for Peace on the Eve of War | Christian group seeks nonviolent solution in Iraq. (March 12, 2003)
Weapons of the Spirit | Regardless of their positions on Iraq, Christians have much they can do. (Feb. 25, 2003)
Just War in Iraq | Sometimes going to war is the charitable thing to do. (Dec. 10, 2002)
Keeping Their Heads Down | Vital but dwindling Christians face many pressures. (Nov. 8, 2002)
Bully Culprit | Can a pre-emptive strike against the tyrant of Baghdad be justified? (Sept. 30, 2001)
Is Attacking Iraq Moral? | Christian leaders disagree, too. (September 4, 2002)