David Pence is a little late (“These wars —they’re religious. Will the West take a side?” July 19). The idea of armed Christian militants marching through the world, steeped in fantasies of rescuing their co-religionists from brutal infidels (especially Muslims), is already a thousand years old.
It’s a largely discredited idea today, especially among Christians, for good reason.
In the abstract, the idea of a religious war to end all religious wars sounds a bit nonsensical. In historical reality, the Crusades whipped up successive whirlwinds of unrestrained violence against perceived enemies, violence that burned far beyond the scope of any righteous purpose. Notoriously, the so-called “People’s Crusade” of 1096 never made it as far as the Holy Land (its putative target), but it worked up pious German Christians into a self-righteous frenzy that spent itself against their Jewish neighbors up and down the Rhine Valley.
Nor is there a dearth of Christian militias today. Think of the Phalangists in Lebanon (responsible for the massacres of refugees at Sabra and Shatila in 1982). Or, painfully closer to home, the Ku Klux Klan in the U.S. (responsible for a century and a half, and counting, of terror against African-American communities in the name of Christian morality) — to say nothing of the little home-brewed bands of self-styled Christian warriors dreaming of “taking America back” from an infidel government while drilling with their AR-15s somewhere deep in the woods.
Pence would, I presume, be shocked — shocked! — to find himself compared to racist groups. After all, he counts himself among the benevolent white Christians who “sent clergymen to march— and then . . . federal troops to protect” after the racist bombing of a church that killed four black girls in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963. But perhaps he forgets that the Birmingham bombers were themselves Christian extremists, disaffected from the Ku Klux Klan, who felt empowered by a righteous cause, one of them invoking “the Lord” and “Judgment Day” at his sentencing.
The unreflective racism is just beneath the surface. Pence writes of our nation’s “Christian heritage,” but is especially concerned to excoriate President Obama for not galvanizing Americans to holy war. He wants us to unite with “black Christian nations”: Are we, then, a white Christian nation? He writes of “us” finding common cause even with “the brown-skinned neighbors who have been growing our food and roofing our houses for the last half-century.” In his mind, do all of us who are neither Christian nor white just cease to be American?
Pence doesn’t explain just how the “Christian statesman” he seeks would be recognized or appointed to his messianic post. In our democracy, almost every presidential candidate in the modern period has found it expedient to profess Christian bona fides. Piety did not keep former Presidents Carter and Reagan from supporting the wars that killed tens of thousands of innocent Christians in Central America — men and women who had shown the temerity of advocating land reform or labor rights or simply learning to read.
The world is a violent place, Pence argues, because of religious sectarianism — by which he apparently means Islamic sectarianism. Perhaps he has forgotten that cities like Baghdad and Sarajevo were once havens of multicultural civility where Jews, Shi’ites, Christians, Sunnis and others got along fairly well — until NATO and a putatively “Christian” America brought their benevolent powers to bear, at the cost of countless lives.
It’s simply not clear that empowering Christians to go to war will fulfill Pence’s messianic dreams. Whatever Saddam Hussein’s sins, they did not stop an Episcopalian U.S. president from arming him with chemical weapons that he used against Iran. Another Episcopalian, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declared that the U.S. sought “Saddamism without Saddam” in Iraq. And these were the explicitly Christian voices in the George H.W. Bush White House.
Baptist President Bill Clinton supervised an economic sanctions program that killed at least half a million Iraqi children through malnutrition and disease, on United Nations estimates. Over the last 25 years, Saddam’s sins have been far surpassed by the devastating toll of U.S. warfare, including bombardment, radioactive munitions, economic sanctions and an egregious mishandling of chemical weapons that continues to afflict the lives of U.S. veterans as well as Iraqi men, women and children.
The evidence has been so clear that even top U.S. military advisers recognize it: U.S. belligerence — whether the bombs are dropped by Methodists or agnostics, whether the drones are piloted by Catholics or Jews — may catch a few terrorists but create hundreds more.
Does Pence really think, in the face of history, that another round of recruiting, arming and deploying fervent Christians will set the world aright? Does he not know how powerfully Christian rhetoric already rings out in the U.S. military — as when Lt. Gen. William Boykin, the deputy undersecretary of defense, declared in 2003 that Iraq was a war between the Christian God and Satan?
It’s not surprising to read a right-wing screed blaming Obama for not bombing enough, or to find that theme wrapped up in Christian piety. It is a bit bewildering that the Star Tribune thought this was worthy of its readers’ attention.
We’re all outraged by the violence visited by religious extremists. That includes the extremists who received their training and, often, their weapons from the U.S. And it includes Christian extremists in or out of uniform.
Neil Elliott, of Falcon Heights, is an Episcopal priest.