A Sermon by Sarah Oelberg on April 6, 2003

Listening to the religious rhetoric of many of our government officials lately, I am beginning to wonder if we have elected pundits or pastors; politicians or preachers. Since the election of 2000, or the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, or both God has been called upon so often by our national leaders that one would think he was the official advisor to the government. Maybe he is, but I don't remember electing God, or even seeing the name on the ballot do you? (Note: I use the masculine pronoun when referring to God here because I am sure that the God the politicians have in mind is male.)

From the beginning of our nation, religion has had an important role in policy formation. It was a big deal when Thomas Jefferson, for example, insisted that there be a wall of separation between church and state in order to protect freedom of conscience. This was one of the most unique and admired provisions of the new democratic American government. Yet, it has been under attack, in one way or another, ever since. In my lifetime, I recall efforts to keep religion out of the public schools and public monies out of the parochial schools in the 40s; censorship crusades in the fifties; birth control battles in the 60s; school prayer controversies in the 70s; the emergence of the so called moral majority in the 80s; and the abortion issue in the 90s.

Only recently, however, have I felt that we were really in danger of losing the religious freedom provided by the Constitution. Our Attorney General, John Ashcroft, the darling of the religious right, is theoretically responsible for enforcing the separation of church and state and protecting our civil liberties. He violates his oath of office and the principle of separation every morning when he falls to his knees on the expensive carpet in his government office and prays, along with several "invited" national leaders who don't dare refuse the invitation.

Of course, leaders have always invoked God's blessing on their actions. Even that immoral rascal Clinton used to end all his speeches with "God Bless America", or just "God Bless." In this respect, the present administration is simply carrying on a familiar tradition. But when our top leaders are all evangelical, fundamentalist, "born again" Christians who describe every issue in theological terms as a struggle against good and evil, right and wrong, we have to wonder if they are capable of being objective and dispassionate about the problems our nation faces. There is more and more evidence to suggest that they are not; that decisions are being made on the basis of religious belief rather than common good. Critics describe the constant use of explicitly Christian language by politicians as divisive and exclusionary.

I believe there is a point at which an emphasis on religion in a politician's approach to issues become inappropriate and even unsettling in a religiously diverse society. And it is not only our present leaders; not only Christians; not only Republicans. Remember when Joe Lieberman was running for the presidency and suggested that "as a people we need to reaffirm our faith and renew the dedication of our nation and ourselves to God and God's purpose." And his argument not to indulge in the supposition that "morality can be maintained without religion." To even suggest that one cannot be a moral person without believing in God is an affront to many highly moral citizens.

The suggestion that we cannot be good without God has been made by many different voices over the years and centuries. Some of those voices have been strident. And we are hearing them again. When he was running for president, George Bush the first said he wanted no atheists in America, for they broke down the social fabric and did not have good values. Now his son and his gang have gone much further, suggesting that anyone who does not share certain beliefs and values with them is incapable of doing good, and ought to be punished. The God they would have us all believe in, of course, is the personal, punishing God who watches over all people and metes out rewards and punishments in order to keep the world in line. It is the God of the Bible God as behavior manager one who decides what the rules shall be, and gives out gold stars to those who follow the rules, and "serious consequences" to those who do not like Saddam Hussein.

This brand of religion is specifically fundamentalist evangelical and Christian. It leaves out the Muslims, Catholics, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Baha'is, Scientologists, Native Americans, and many others including most Unitarian Universalists and, of course, those wicked Pagans, atheists and non believers. The Bush administration is clearly the most resolutely "faith based" and religiously narrow of any in modern times. It seems the principals in this administration see no difference between church and state indeed, want to make them the same. It is alarming to think that they may be having more success in bringing Americans around to their point of view than we are at sticking to our traditional beliefs about freedom of religion. When politicians pray and national leaders bombard us with displays of their godliness, should we feel safer as they rise from their knees? I don't know about you, but I find no comfort in knowing that they are so religious.

Actually, I am beginning to feel sorry for God. I am afraid the current crop of politicians are asking too much of poor God. It is bad enough that they ask God to become involved in big things like wars, foreign policy, and the economy. But what does it mean, for example, when First Lady Mary Pawlenty says that she and the governor want to "bring hospitality and warmth to the governor's residence and do so in a way that is God honoring?" Is God expected to be both military expert and interior designer? And is God the one who decided that we should not raise taxes in Minnesota, or continue to provide benefits to the same sex partners of state employees? Is he responsible for the decision that schools must make students say the pledge of allegiance at least once a week, or that citizens should be allowed to carry concealed weapons? I presume so, since the governor, like the president, claims that he asks God before he makes any decision. he thinks God tells him what to do.

Frankly, this idea scares me. I mean, I am against this war in Iraq, for example, but apparently, according to Bush, God is for it, a view from which the Catholic bishops and mainline Protestant denominations sharply dissent. So does that mean that if I am against the war, I am against God's will? During the Civil War, Lincoln said, "The question is not whether God is on our side, but whether we are on God's." Bush is sure he knows what side God would be on, and he is on the same side. So, in the midst of a war, we have as commander in chief a man who says that he solely depends on Christ, making comments like "We do not claim to know all the ways of Providence, yet we can trust in them, placing our confidence in the loving God behind all of life and all of history. May he guide us now." This is also the man who said during the presidential campaign that Christ was his favorite philosopher because "He changed my heart."

George W. Bush's numerous references to God in many of his speeches have caused many to wonder about the wisdom of letting the faith that seems to have grasped ahold of the heart of the most powerful man in the world determine what happens in our nation, the world, and now a war. Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report, and even The Christian Century have had articles about the link between Bush's policies and his evangelical Christian faith. They suggest that Bush uses religious language to further political aims and to imply that his critics do not share his moral high ground.

C. Welton Geddy, a Baptist minister and executive director of the Interfaith Alliance, says the president "uses religious language to cloak and at times to promote national policy." The head of his own Evangelical Methodist Church wrote that Bush's newly public faith echoes Calvinist thinking about divine providence and plans for America. He says Bush believes in a "divine plan that supersedes all human plans." And Robin Lovin, an ethicist at Southern Methodist University, said: "All sorts of warning signals go off when a sense of personal closeness and calling gets translated into a sense of calling and mission for a nation." In addition, Lovin said that Bush seems to lack an awareness of moral ambiguity his belief gives him a sense of moral certitude which allows him to go forth with his plans without looking back or listening to the voices of others the only voice he listens to is that of God.

Evangelical leaders contend that the fuss in unwarranted. Bush's expressions of faith and moral fortitude are, they say, what Americans expect to hear from the White House. The head of the National Association of Evangelicals, Richard Cizik, claims "the people of America are a religious people, and our president has not transcended the boundaries of what is appropriate in the public arena." When Bush spoke to the National Religious Broadcasters convention, the chairman, in introducing Bush, said people rejoice when the righteous are in authority but mourn when the wicked rule. "Mr. President, as you can see, we are rejoicing," he said. His religious allies say they're comforted knowing he seeks divine wisdom. "I sleep more peacefully at night," says one, "knowing that the President is a man who trusts in the Lord."

Not everyone is rejoicing or sleeping better. There are many policies being made by this administration that fly in the face of the separation of church and state such as Bush's "faith based" initiative to grant government money to religious groups to carry out programs of public welfare. Right now, however, it is the issue of the war and the policies around it that concern people the most. When Bush talks about "an outlaw regime in Iraq that hates our country," and that "American troops will act in the honorable traditions of our military and in the highest moral traditions of our country" to "rid the world of evil," people get nervous. It is natural to use the language of good and evil to interpret specific events like September 11, but it is dangerous to use it to characterize countries and whole people. By referring to Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an "axis of evil," Bush is placing himself at the axis of good. Many feel that his language may incite a "holy war" between Christians and Muslims that his rhetoric "could set us up to be perceived as engaged in a holy war."

There is no question about his certainty that what he is doing is right. When he was unable to adequately persuade the rest of the world and even many Americans that Iraq is an immediate threat to the United States, he resorted to claiming that the U.S. has a moral responsibility to take out Saddam Hussein. This reliance on moral authority worries some of his critics. Historian Robert Dahl says, "In many ways, he's an evangelist. He is not prone to deep thinking. He thinks he has all the right answers, that the Lord is on his side, and that he's doing God's work." He knows what is best.

This feeling of certainty fits with his born again Christian belief that there is good and evil in the world and everyone must take sides. Saddam, in Bush's mind, is evil personified. Since he is on the other side, Bush is, by definition, good. In his mind, there are no shades of grey you are "with us or against us", "on the side of evil or working for good." Because he feels so strongly that he is right, that God told him what to do the president has refused to meet with leaders of the mainline National Council of Churches (all of whom oppose the war) and has rejected the counsel of the nation's Roman Catholic Bishops.

Some are beginning to wonder if the president might be influenced by evangelical teachings that call for an end of the world battle between Israel and its enemies. They say the administration's downgrading of the Israeli Palestinian conflict; its hostility to multinational cooperation and international agreements; its muted response to growing Jewish settlement in Palestinian territory; its unrelenting focus on Saddam Hussein strike prophecy believers as perfectly in harmony with God's prophetic plan: a plan that will bring human history to an apocalyptic end and usher in the longed for Rapture, when all true believers will join Christ in heaven. Some say that without close attention to this prophetic scenario embraced by millions of American citizens, the current political climate in the United States cannot be understood.

Leaders have always invoked God's blessing on their wars. But when our born again president describes the nation's foreign policy objective in theological terms as a global struggle against "evildoers," and when he casts Saddam Hussein as a demonic, quasi supernatural figure who could unleash "a day of horror like none we have ever known," he is not just playing on our memories of 9/11 and our fear of terrorism. He is also invoking a powerful and ancient apocalyptic vocabulary that conveys a specific and thrilling end for millions of prophecy believers (some 60% of Americans, according to a recent poll). An end, not just to Saddam Hussein, but of human history as we know it.(1)

Christian thinking on war has evolved over the centuries. The early followers of Jesus were opposed to war. Surrounded by warring peoples, they considered themselves different. For those who walked in the shoes of the Prince of Peace, war was simply not acceptable. In the 5th century AD, the great St. Augustine changed that, setting forth a more realistic philosophy of war. He taught that, according to natural law, war was a permissible part of the life of a nation, and the power of conducting war was part of the natural powers of a nation's leader, whose job it was to protect the peace. But, in his thinking, war was acceptable only if waged in order to attain peace.

Eight centuries later, St. Thomas Aquinas expanded on Augustine, arguing the notion of a "just war." According to Catholic theology since then, in order for a war to be considered "just," it must meet three conditions: it must be prosecuted by a lawful authority; it must be undertaken for a just cause, which Aquinas defined as self defense; and the war must be undertaken to "achieve some good and avoid some evil." In the case of the war in Iraq, most religious leaders have no doubt: because it is a preemptive strike, with no prior provocation by Iraq toward the U.S., Bush's war does not meet the test. Pope Paul warned this last week: "A war of aggression would be a crime against peace." The bishops of the United Methodist Church echoed: "A preemptive war by the United States goes against the grain of our understanding of the gospel."

Bush is a Methodist. But his understanding of the gospel comes from the evangelical arm of Methodism. The Pope sent a cardinal from the Vatican to have a discussion with Bush not about politics, but about theology. The cardinal told the president that the Pope disagrees that God supports an invasion of Iraq. "God does not intervene in the affairs of man," the papal emissary said. This is sound Catholic theology going back to Aquinas. It comes from the belief that God granted humans free will, so that they could choose for themselves between heaven and hell, good and evil. If God were to intervene, that would deprive humans of the freedom to choose for themselves, and thus take away the opportunity of deserving grace and attaining heaven.

Bush told the Vatican envoy that his own theology depends on a partnership with a God who is directly involved in the affairs of humans a God who lets us know His will, who speaks to us, who takes sides. Bush has not an atom of doubt that he knows God's will, that God wants a regime change in Iraq, and that God approves of Bush's decision to bring that about by war. (2)

Maybe invading Iraq was the right thing to do. But I, for one, would feel better about it if the decision had been made based on factors other than the president's theology. I think it is the duty of a president to use his intelligence and experience, draw on the wisdom and advice of learned colleagues, and then decide for himself what the right choice is. The problem with being sure that God is on your side is that you can't change your mind, because God sure isn't going to change his. I would feel more confident if I thought there might be a way out; if there were still options we might use. I would like to think important decisions were being made because the leaders had free will, and the responsibility that comes with it. I would sleep better knowing the president and his advisors trusted not only in the Lord, but in the collective wisdom and historical experience of the people and nations of the world. I would like us to return to a time of separation of church and state.

  1. Paul S. Boyer, "Foreign Policy and Bible Prophecy," Chronicle of Higher Education, Feb. 2003.
  2. Roger Ebert, "Praying is Fine, but Bush should make up his own mind," Chicago ~Sun Times, March 13, 2003.