Evangelicals and Peace

To address meaningfully the injustices of the world, Catholics and evangelicals must recognize the legitimacy of different callings of the Church.

In a forward to a book which I have recently edited, (Evangelicals and the Bishops’ Pastoral Letter, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Erdmans Publishing Company, 1984), Archbishop John J. O’Connor suggests that there are signs today of an emerging rapprochement between Catholics and evangelicals. Such a development would certainly be of great significance in terms of American theological ecumenicity; yet, a more likely impact is to be felt in the marketplace of socio-political ideas which is the foundation of American democracy.

For several years Catholics and evangelicals have formed the backbone of the anti-abortion movement. While examples of formal alliances between both have been few, evangelicals and Catholics have spoken out together in support of the sacredness of the life of the unborn. Indeed, it is the recognition of the dignity and worth of all human beings (rooted in an acknowledgement that we are image-bearers of God) which has stimulated the social consciousness of Catholics as well as evangelicals.

However, when we move beyond a general affirmation of the sacredness of life and the application of this principle to the specific issue of abortion, there is little agreement among American Catholics or evangelicals regarding a wide variety of other socio-political issues which have traditionally elicited little disagreement or controversy.

In a very real sense it is now possible to conclude that important segments of Catholicism and evangelicalism have moved from their long-standing support of what John Courtney Murray called “the American proposition” to an advocacy of what Richard John Neuhaus has labeled “counter-propositions”. What is troubling about this is not only the substance of the “counter-propositions” but the manner in which many Catholics and evangelicals have embraced them. Both show little awareness that all specific applications of moral principles — i.e. policy choices and recommendations — are at best tentative and incomplete. It is this tentativeness and incompleteness which generates the pluralism of perspectives which democracy and its institutions reflect and must respect.

In recent years, many evangelicals have dogmatically embraced a set of “counter-propositions” which have helped to contribute to the slow erosion of the pluralistic underpinnings of American democracy. Certainly the evangelical contribution to this erosion cannot be viewed in isolation. Numerous other religious denominations and traditions have also been actively and vocally involved in the movement away from “the American proposition” during the past decade. Yet one of the most significant phenomena of this past half century has been the social and political awakening of a theologically conservative Protestantism.

Evangelicals, whether of the political right or left, now represent a major political force in the American polity. Therefore, the union of vision and practice by evangelicals and other religious traditions, particularly Catholic, portends a very powerful source of influence throughout all sectors of American society. In this light, the rapprochement of which Archbishop O’Connor writes signals a crucial juncture in the history of the American experience: the opportunity to reaffirm or to fundamentally redefine the nature of American democracy.

As part of a larger Protestant tradition, evangelicals do not have a rich history of scholarship — Biblical or otherwise — relating to war and peace. Evangelicals have historically reflected the dominant themes of the just war doctrine as that doctrine was developed within the tradition of the Catholic Church.

Perhaps the single most original contribution of the Protestant tradition to the theological reflection on war and peace came with the emergence of the various pacifist movements during the time of the Reformation. However, since the birth of the evangelical movement earlier this century, the tenets of the just war doctrine have been the dominant themes around which evangelicals have approached war and peace. Until the present moment, evangelical pacifism has been a relatively obscure doctrine of a few geographically and ethnically provincial denominations such as the Mennonites.

It is fair to characterize the relationship that has historically existed between the dominant just war groups and the pacifist minority as respectful. Each group perceived the other as playing a different role within the context of the total mission of the Church; the pacifists embraced the role of prophet while the just war majority saw their calling in the role of king. What is vitally important to recognize is that until recently neither group questioned the legitimacy of the other’s calling. Disagreements existed, to be sure, but both accepted the just war and pacifist doctrines as different understandings of the same Biblical message.

With the rise of a more socially-conscious evangelicalism in the early 1970s, evangelical attitudes toward war and peace began to change. In the larger sense of things, this reorientation was a reflection of a growing ideological polarization among evangelicals generally. In many ways the emergence of the “new” evangelicals under the institutional umbrella of organizations such as Evangelicals for Social Action was as important an event as the formation of the National Association of Evangelicals forty years earlier.

In the late Sixties and early Seventies, evangelicals who had staunchly supported the expansion of American power and increasing defense budgets found themselves confronted with a growing number of “new” or “radical” evangelicals who rejected many of the economic, social and military premises of American society. It was not without significance that the first major publication to emerge from this “radical” evangelicalism was entitled the Post American.

What happened next followed closely the evolution of ideas in American society generally during the 1970s. Specifically, the political radicalism of the evangelical counter-culture mellowed into a more establishment variety. As a result, many who had been associated with the mainstream of evangelicalism in the Forties, Fifties and Sixties began to echo the major themes of the “radicals”. The net result was that Christian social action, i.e. evangelical social action, increasingly found its moral justification in the Biblical hermeneutic, socio-economic critique, and political agenda of the “radical” evangelicals — a point of view in most respects indistinguishable from the critique of the secular left in America.

The culmination of this transformation, which led to the imbuing of mainstream evangelicalism with the ideology of what had been just a few short years before referred to as “radical”, was the “Chicago Declaration” of 1973. In this landmark rationale for evangelical social responsibility, mainstream evangelicals such as Carl F. H. Henry, Vernon Grounds, and Frank Gaebelein joined Jim Wallis and other “new” evangelicals in affirming that “. . . God requires justice (but) we have not proclaimed or demonstrated his justice to an unjust American society.”

The purpose of the Declaration, in its own words, was to “call our fellow evangelical Christians to demonstrate repentance in a Christian discipleship that confronts the social and political injustice of our nation.” Christian discipleship, the Declaration went on to state, requires that evangelicals

. . . challenge the misplaced trust of the nation in economic and military might — a proud trust that promotes a national pathology of war and violence which victimizes our neighbors at home and abroad.

With these words the elite of the evangelical world signaled a break with the historical evangelical support of American domestic and foreign policy. While the words of the Declaration are couched in general terms, the message is unambiguous. The evangelical leaders who signed the “Chicago Declaration” were endorsing the proposition that American society is permeated with injustice that finds its roots in American social and economic structures. Furthermore, they were endorsing the proposition that the United States uses its economic and military power to perpetuate injustice throughout the world. The message of the “Chicago Declaration” is clear: domestic and international injustice are the result of the inherent bellicosity of American economic and military structures; therefore, global justice is predicated upon the United States renouncing its use of power. Are there legitimate uses of American power? By definition no, since American institutions are inherently unjust and any use of American power is simply an attempt to further the interests of those who have a vested interest in these unjust structures.

In rejecting the traditional American conservative and liberal consensus on the inherent legitimacy of American socio-economic institutions (even if they were flawed), the evangelical leaders who endorsed the “Chicago Declaration” embraced a critique of American society and American foreign policy with roots firmly planted in the ideology of the New Left. Moreover, in stating that “we proclaim no new gospel, but the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ . . . (and) we endorse no political ideology . . .” the signers of the “Chicago Declaration” were, in the first instance, theologically presumptuous and, in the second instance, intellectually dishonest.

One suspects that many of the evangelicals who signed the “Chicago Declaration” in 1973 were not aware of the implications of what they were endorsing. Moreover, a decade later there is reason to believe that at least some of the signers would probably not endorse the document to-day. All this, however, is not to suggest that the “Chicago Declaration” had little impact beyond the mid-Seventies. The document formally established the critique, themes, and agenda which the evangelical world — particularly the evangelical elite — has since come to regard as Biblically and politically correct. Specifically, the Declaration focused attention on the centrality of peace and justice in defining the evangelical social mission; moreover, peace and justice were defined solely within the context of unjust American economic and foreign policy institutions.

It is both ironic and immensely significant that for many evangelicals injustice would henceforth be considered only the product of American society; gone was the historical evangelical concern with Marxism. Nowhere in the “Chicago Declaration” are the dangers of totalitarianism addressed.

Within this ideological environment the present evangelical preoccupation with war and peace was nurtured. With justice being the sine qua non of Christian responsibility, U.S. foreign and arms policy have become the target of evangelical activism. These concerns dovetailed during the late 1970s with a resuscitated American peace movement which seized upon the production and deployment of a wide range of new weapons systems as a pretext for increased activism. “Peacemaking” — opposition to nuclear weapons systems and related strategies — became a priority for many influential evangelicals.

In the Spring of 1978 some 200 evangelicals issued a “Call to Faithfulness”, committing themselves to

. . . total abolition of nuclear weapons. We the signers of this declaration, commit ourselves to non-cooperation with our country’s preparations for nuclear war . . . we commit ourselves to resist in the name of Jesus Christ.

More important yet was Billy Graham’s announcement in 1979 that he had changed his own views on nuclear weapons. Confessing that he had previously “confused the kingdom of God with the American way of life,” Graham urged evangelicals to reconsider their support for U.S. strategic policy.

By the early 1980s highly visible and influential evangelicals such as Vernon Grounds, John R. W. Stott and Ronald J. Sider were regularly speaking out against the arms race and U.S. arms policy in particular. In May of 1983 another landmark event in the evangelical engagement of war,-peace issues took place when over 1400 evangelicals gathered in Pasadena to take part in a conference on “The Church and Peacemaking in the Nuclear Age.” The conveners of the conference represented an interesting coalition ranging from Youth for Christ to New Call for Peacemaking. The conference’s billing as the most significant event of its kind in the brief history of evangelicalism was probably accurate. There was, to be sure, an effort on the part of the conference conveners to elicit participation from, in the words of the conference organizers, “a wide spectrum of opinion on questions of the nuclear arms race.” In reality, however, the gathering was dominated in every respect by evangelical “peace” activists, children of the “Chicago Declaration”.

Where, then, does the evangelical response to war and peace now stand? While the question is simple, the answer is very complex. As the discussion above suggests, during the past decade-and-a-half many evangelicals have reexamined their historical support for both the just war doctrine and U.S. foreign and arms policy. Moreover, many evangelicals have allied themselves with the secular peace movement and other religious traditions — Protestant and Catholic — in opposition to traditional U.S. foreign and arms policy.

I have purposely used the word “many” here to describe the activities of some evangelicals. For what is particularly distressing is that at the highly visible level at which war-peace issues are being discussed — at evangelical colleges, in churches and in evangelical publications — there is little reflection of the pluralism of viewpoints that is represented by evangelicals as a whole.

In the summer of 1983 the National Association of Evangelicals commissioned the Gallup Organization to survey evangelical views about the nuclear arms race. The results of that survey are revealing. For example, 77% of all the evangelicals surveyed said they favored “an immediate verifiable freeze on the testing, production, and deployment of nuclear weapons.” On this question, evangelicals differed little from the general public. However, when the evangelicals were asked if they believed that “a person can be a good Christian and still support the possession of nuclear weapons”, 85% said yes. Moreover 61% of the evangelicals said they approved “of the way President Reagan is dealing with the nuclear arms situation.”

In short, the results of the NAE/Gallup poll demonstrate that the vast majority of evangelicals do not see the war-peace issue in the same way as many of their elites have come to view it. Certainly one must be cautious in interpreting opinion data; nonetheless, one cannot help but be struck by the contrast between the views of the evangelical in the pew, the student in the classroom, and the reader of evangelical publications, and the ideological commitment of many of the evangelical leadership who are preaching, teaching and writing.

The problem here is twofold. First, while there is reason to believe that the views of the evangelical elite represent the minority point of view, the elite exercises influence far beyond their numbers. During the past five years, for example, the overwhelming majority of evangelical books on nuclear weapons, war and peace or U.S. foreign policy reflect the perspective of the left. Ronald J. Sider’s and Richard K. Taylor’s Nuclear Holocaust and Christian Hope is a prominent example of one such book which has found its way into innumerable college classrooms and churches. There is certainly nothing wrong with this or any other book being read by evangelicals; however, when this book or any other is presented without the consideration of material from other points of view — as is more often than not the case — a serious disservice has been done to honest, free intellectual inquiry.

It is at this level — the substantive level — that one finds the second danger of the present evangelical engagement of war and peace issues; specifically, the past 15 years has witnessed an erosion of evangelical respect for the different- callings of the Church. Both the evangelical left and right must share the blame for the demise of an evangelical center and the subsequent rise of increasing polarization among evangelicals on war and peace issues.

The problem of the past few years finds its genesis in an “activist” pacifism which has gained wide acceptance among many evangelical leaders. Unlike the “historical” pacifism which advocated nonviolence within the context of a theology of two kingdoms, the “activist” pacifism prominent today accepts the ethics of Shalom — the ethic of perfect peace — as normative for policy-making in a fallen world. To seek to live one’s own life according to what George Weigel calls the “politics of eternity” is certainly legitimate and indeed demanded of disciples of Jesus Christ. However, in a fallen world — a world of good and evil — the politics of eternity is a dangerous foundation upon which to make public policy.

Is the pacifist tradition an unworthy one? To the contrary, the traditional pacifist witness to the ethics of the fulfilled kingdom serves as a constant reminder of where the “politics of this world” must be directed. The traditional pacifist witness is that of the prophet, pointing to the world to come. However, when this prophetic witness becomes confused with the realities of the “not yet” aspect of the kingdom, an even greater disservice to peace and justice results.

Ours is a world of imperfect peace and imperfect justice. Those whose calling is not to prophecy but to ad-minister stand under the judgment of the ethics of God’s perfect Kingdom; they make choices knowing that they cannot create the best world, the most just world, or the perfectly peaceful world. Acknowledging the “already and not yet” dimensions of Christ’s Kingdom, those who are called to ad-minister seek a better world, a more just world, a more peaceful world.

It is perplexing that evangelicals, whose historic distinctiveness arises out of their affirmation of the fundamentals of the Judeo-Christian tradition, would ignore the fundamental starting point of their theology — namely, the all-pervasive nature of sin. In the fulfilled kingdom, perfect peace and perfect justice will reign together; swords will be beat into plowshares; the lion will lie down with the lamb. Until that future time, however, it is a grave moral error to equate justice with a peace that is impossible. Human history — particularly the history of this century — has taught us that peace and justice are not unrelated concepts. The lesson of history is simple and immutable: there can be no peace apart from justice. Unfortunately, too many in the evangelical world have reversed the equation. Hitler, Stalin and Mao, to name just a few, provide brutal evidence that there exist states of “peace” that are far more unjust than many wars. Those evangelicals who advocate the peace of Shalom as the absolute ethic upon which to build a national foreign policy have bought into a secular survivalist ethic, a la Jonathan Schell, which denies that there exists transcendent values — e.g. freedom, human dignity, protection of the innocent — which are more important than the mere survival of biological life.

Just as disturbing is the corollary assumption which states that any evil which does exist in the world is institutionalized in equal amounts in the socio-economic structures of all nations. The argument of the moral equivalency of all nations is a powerful one for many evangelicals. There would be little to be concerned about if these notions were irrelevant and petty scholastic arguments; however, they are not. The tragic reality is that by accepting this set of ideas many evangelicals have blinded themselves to some of the greatest injustices in human history.

It is not a matter, as Donald Kraybill suggests in Facing Nuclear War, of “the giants (the United States and the Soviet Union) wanting us (Christians) to take sides”. Kraybill is right when he writes that “God doesn’t take sides”, in the sense that God is not an American or a Russian this is true. However, God is on the side of the Good; what is the Christian faith but the promise of the ultimate triumph of Good over Evil? The assumption that all nations, all national interests, and all foreign policies are morally equivalent is one of the great moral tragedies of our day.

All Christians should welcome a socially-awakened evangelicalism. What is disheartening, however; is that the evangelical engagement of the Biblical, moral and strategic dimensions of war and peace issues has not reflected the kind of academic rigor, intellectual balance, and spiritual humility which is the prerequisite of an effective Christian witness to a fallen world.

In this regard, the evangelical experience has, unfortunately, followed closely the experience of most other religious groups who have sought to impact American public opinion and public policy. In a fallen world, slogans, clichés, and wishes are no substitute for the hard realities of choosing among frequently less than optimal options. In order to prevent the catastrophic implications inherent in the secularization of American society, Christians — Catholic and evangelical — must not forfeit their God-mandated responsibility to address meaningfully the injustices of our world. To do so, however, requires a return, politically, to a reaffirmation of “the American proposition” and, theologically, to a renewed commitment to the sacred legitimacy of the different callings of the Church.

If Catholics and evangelicals are to reaffirm “the American proposition” and meaningfully address the in-justices of the world, we must begin by acknowledging that our different notions of war and peace are grounded in our different callings. Regardless of our perspectives, all Christians have, as their foremost responsibility, the challenge of building a more just and peaceful world — this is the challenge of Kingdom-building. We are to be faithful to our dual citizenship, heavenly and earthly. As citizens of the heavenly kingdom we are called to be faithful to heavenly principles; as citizens of this earthly kingdom we cannot flee our earthly responsibilities. This is the paradox of the Christian faith. While we take comfort in the realization that peace is possible, we do so knowing that it must, in the words of Archbishop O’Connor “be prayed for, worked for, negotiated for, and even, but as a last resort, fought for.”

Dean S. Curry is chairman of the Department of History and Political Science at Messiah College and the editor of Evangelicals and the Bishops’ Pastoral Letter (Eerdmans). Dr. Curry is currently serving as an advisor to a World Without War Council-National Association of Evangelicals program studying war and peace issues among evangelical churches, colleges and seminaries.


  • Dean C. Curry

    Dean C. Curry is chairman of the department of history and political science and associate professor of political science at Messiah College. He coauthored Nuclear Arms: Two Views on World Peace and edited Evangelicals and the Bishops' Pastoral Letter. When he wrote this article, he was serving as an advisor to a World Without War Council-National Association of Evangelicals program, studying war and peace issues among evangelical churches, colleges, adn seminaries.

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