Ethics & Public Policy Center

A Question of Witness



One of the most extraordinary transformations in contemporary American public life has been the radical change in the ideological orientation of mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic church leaders as they enter the world affairs arena. Eight themes are now regularly displayed in the foreign policy pronouncements of the National Council of Churches and the sundry religious-activist agencies, and in many of the statements of the United States Catholic Conference. These themes, one suspects, would not be happily received by Reinhold Niebuhr, or by John Courtney Murray, the great American Catholic public theologian.

Peace is now understood in personal-psychological and/or shalom terms as the absence of conflict.

Human nature is considered perfectible, this side of the Kingdom of God.

The present international system must be radically altered so that the “justice claims” of the Third World can be met through new international orders of economics, communications, and so forth.

National political obligation must take a back seat to the responsibilities of global citizenship.

Military force, as exercised by the United States, cannot contribute to peace, liberty, or justice.

Anti-communism is a greater threat to peace than the Soviet Union, which is a defensive power scarred by the experience of multiple invasions.

U.S. intervention in the internal affairs of other countries is to be avoided, save in cases such as South Africa, South Korea, and Chile, where right-wing repression is supported by U.S. policy.

And the United States, on balance and considering the alternatives, is not much of a force for good in the world.

These eight war/peace teachings are often combined with a deep animus toward market-oriented forms of political economy, as in the case mounted against continued U.S. corporate involvement in South Africa.

The proximate origin of these themes was the Vietnam-era New Left, although their roots can be traced back into certain strands of the Social Gospel movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Whatever their historical pedigree, however, these themes are now the common wisdom in those parts of the American religious intellectual and leadership elite most vocally concerned about problems of war and peace.

One tragic expression of the failure of the new religious foreign policy imagination was the 1970 statement of the United Presbyterian Church/USA: “Put an end to strife and bloodshed. Leave Vietnam promptly.” The church’s advice was taken, and the bloodshed, strife, and human suffering in Vietnam intensified, to the point where hundreds of thousands of people threw themselves into small boats on the open sea. The tragedy of the Vietnam era is now being repeated, with the Nicaraguan civil war as the focal point.

Last March, for example, a statement signed by two hundred prominent religious leaders was released on the steps of the U.S. Capitol during a demonstration organized by “Witness for Peace.” The crux of their message was in the final paragraph: “We call upon all persons of faith and conscience in the United States to look at the effects of current U.S. policy in Nicaragua and all of Central America, and to join with us in saying to the government of the United States, “IN THE NAME OF GOD, STOP THE LIES, STOP THE KILLING.”

Once again, the sole source of violence, strife, and bloodshed was U.S. policy. Once again, ending the violence required only that the United States disengage itself from the quest for peace, liberty, and justice in Nicaragua.

And once again it seems certain that, should this counsel be followed, the suffering will increase.

This statement, paradigmatic of the mainline Protestant and Catholic leadership’s approach to Central American affairs since the late 1970s, was not only notable for its Vietnam-style prescription, however; it was also depressingly mendacious in its description of life in Nicaragua. The two hundred leaders who signed the statement did not just have a policy disagreement over the question of military assistance to the Nicaraguan resistance. No, they actively held a brief for the Sandinista regime-despite the fact that its human rights abuses have been severely criticized by Amnesty International, Americas Watch, and the Socialist International (to name three sources not notable for their celebration of U.S. foreign policy under the Reagan administration). If we may be permitted a theologism, here was the sin of the religious leaders’ statement: not that it rejected one policy option, about which reasonable people, committed to peace with freedom, can and do disagree, but that it lied about the reality of Nicaraguan life, and particularly about the incontestable fact of Sandinista-led religious persecution.

Things have not improved since that demonstration on the Capitol steps, and this despite the further closing of the totalitarian vise on Nicaraguan civil life. Since the statement cited above, the independent Managua newspaper La Prensa has been shut down by the Sandinista regime. Independent trade unionists have been systematically harrassed. The Sandinistas now hold some sixty-five hundred political prisoners, according to the independent Permanent Commission on Human Rights of Nicaragua (Anastasio Somoza kept an average of six hundred political prisoners). Msgr. Bismarck Carballo, a key assistant to Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo of Managua, has been denied permission to re-enter his country. Bishop Pablo Antonio Vega has been expelled from Nicaragua.

Yet, in spite of this evidence. Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit signed, in October 1986, a “Quest for Peace” fundraising letter in support of what the bishop described as “a new citizens’ policy of healing, peace and friendship, a democratic policy of which we Americans can be proud.” Unfortunately, to judge from the contents of the “Quest for Peace” fundraising packet, that “democratic policy” does not include freedom for Interior Minister Tomas Borge’s political prisoners, freedom to publish for La Prensa, freedom to organize for the independent unions, or freedom to return home for Monsignor Carballo and Bishop Vega. Bishop Gumbleton, and the ecumenical cadre who joined him in endorsing the “Quest for Peace” appeal, continued to bear false witness, not a witness for peace, on the matter of Sandinista human rights abuses.

One typical response to this pattern of ideologically selective religious activism is to argue that the churches have no business in the foreign policy arena. This response should be rejected as firmly as the confusion that has too often characterized religious leaders’ statements on Central American questions.

The issue-theologically and constitutionally-is not whether the churches will be involved in these debates, but how? What ends will they serve? What means will they support toward the achievement of those ends?” What will they teach the American people about the United States, about the nature of conflict in international affairs, about the world role of the Soviet Union and its clients, about the ways and means of moral reasoning in a world persistently hostile to Judeo-Christian values? The bishops, stated clerks, nuns, moderators, and ministers who sign “Witness for Peace” petitions and “Quest for Peace” fundraising letters may have lost a vote or two in Congress in 1986, but they continue to have a powerful impact on American political culture through their ability to frame the terms of public discourse.

Changing the present patterns of the morality and foreign policy argument among America’s religious elites is an essential-perhaps the essential-task in reconstructing a public consensus able to sustain American policies that work for peace, security, and freedom together. Attempts to drive religious leaders, publicists, and activists out of the policy debate will only worsen the situation. Getting into the argument briskly is the only answer.

Which, in future issues of AMERICAN PURPOSE, we shall do, briskly.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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