What Determines the Direction That Religion Takes?
BY CONDONING the Vietnam war at first, the churches led many people to consider it proper to fight in it. But now some religious organizations and their officials condemn the war. They declare that participation in it is wrong.
Why the change? Are the churches now guiding their members to live in harmony with Bible teachings? Or do other factors determine the guidance that religion provides?
The Oregon Journal recently noted that ‘churchmen were only going along with the crowd.’22 Thus, when people expressed little opposition to the war, the churches supported it. But when the public grew disgusted with the drawn-out fighting and bloodshed, then the clergy began opposing the war.
Alden Munson, editor of the United Methodist, a publication of the Methodist Church, explained:
“An accumulation of messy affairs like My Lai and the best communication coverage of war in history have had an effect on the entire nation, and the church is finally tagging along on antiwar sentiment. . . . Estimates of civilian casualties in Vietnam since 1965 range from 1 to 4 million men, women and children, but only now are the churches beginning to express horror.”23
Yes, it was not until the war became ‘unpopular’ that religion’s cry for “peace” grew audible. It has been noted of churches that they determine what is currently popular, and then decide their position accordingly. New York city clergyman Robert J. McCracken admitted: “We are careful not to take a stand unless we know in what direction the wind is blowing.”24
Attempt to Show Consistent Leadership
The Catholic Church recently indicated that it has not changed its position on the war. It asserts that Catholic leadership never did support the Vietnam war. This claim is, in effect, made in a document released last year by the U.S. Catholic Conference (USCC), the administrative arm of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Yet even prominent Catholic theologians say that, rather than being opposed to the war, the bishops had supported it. In fact, about the same time the USCC document was released, Catholic priest Peter J. Riga, Professor of Religion at La Salle College, wrote:
“Because of their massive failure of moral leadership in the greatest moral issue of our day, these American Catholic bishops who supported this war (some 95 per cent) should resign en masse because they are no longer fit for the office; . . . he who has blood on his hands is not fit to be a minister. I say that the American Catholic bishops, by their moral failure, have the blood of men on their hands.”25
Do such charges by Catholics themselves cause you to wonder about the truthfulness of what the bishops have published?
Misrepresenting the Truth
Commonweal, a Catholic magazine, discussed this matter. The writer, Catholic professor and sociologist Gordon Zahn, after studying the USCC document said:
“I must challenge it as an apparently deliberate attempt to create, by means of a highly selective approach to history, a false impression that the formal leadership of the church has been a source of consistent, though prudently restrained, opposition to the war.”26
Illustrating the document’s “highly selective approach to history” is the absence in it of statements of Catholic leaders who voiced support of the war. The most significant omission is the late Cardinal Spellman’s endorsements.
In fact, the statements made by Church leaders in support of the war, omitted in this document, are so numerous that Commonweal observed: “One suspects the USCC researchers could have compiled at least as extensive a body of episcopal statements supporting the war from the archives of the New York Archdiocese alone.”27
But all of such evidence was deliberately left out! Yet “simple honesty,” Commonweal said, should require the inclusion of such statements, “embarrassing though they may seem now that the full measure of that war’s immorality is there for all to see.”28
Is it not apparent that the USCC document is an obvious attempt to cover up religion’s early support for what is now an unpopular war? Such dishonesty may surprise you.
What Determines Where Religion Leads
It is true that ministers often teach from the Bible about ‘peace on earth’ and ‘love of neighbor.’ Thus you may have assumed that religion directs mankind to live in harmony with Bible teachings, and to turn away from war and violence.
It is a mistake, however, to consider only what religion says. Rather, it is vital also to examine what religion actually does. What does religion do when national leaders decide it is in their nation’s interest to fight a war?
Under these circumstances, do the churches point to Jesus’ words: “By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love among yourselves”? (John 13:35) Do they explain to their members that genuine Christian love is not affected by national boundaries? Do they make clear that all true followers of Christ love one another regardless of the country in which they live or the race to which they belong?
Do the churches also emphasize to their members the words of Jesus’ apostle John: “We should have love for one another; not like Cain, who originated with the wicked one and slaughtered his brother”? (1 John 3:10-12) Do they explain that killing fellow humans on the battlefield, and especially members of their own religion, is not showing love for them? Do they point out that one who does this is, in fact, serving the “wicked one,” Satan the Devil?
It is quite obvious that when nations prepare for war the churches set aside such Bible teachings. A well-known Protestant clergyman, the late Harry Emerson Fosdick, admitted:
“Our Western history has been one war after another. We have bred men for war, trained men for war; we have glorified war; we have made warriors our heroes and even in our churches we have put the battle flags . . . With one corner of our mouth we have praised the Prince of Peace and with the other we have glorified war.”29
The fact is, not what the Bible says, but what national leaders say and what is currently popular with the people determine where religion leads. Commenting editorially regarding the Vietnam war, the Vancouver Sun noted: “It is a weakness of perhaps all organized religion that the church follows the flag . . . What war was ever fought in which God wasn’t claimed to be on each side?”30
Supporting Only “Just Wars”?
The excuse that the churches often give for backing their country’s wars is that their country’s cause is just—it fights only “just wars.” Therefore, it is argued, it is religion’s duty to back the national war effort.
But think about that for a moment. Does not every nation that becomes involved in a war claim that its cause is “just”? It is as a recent encyclopedia observes: “The causes of war may be selfish, base, or even wicked, but the reasons stated are usually lofty and noble. Both sides in a war may show reasons which they consider to be valid.”31
Thus on the basis of what are considered ‘valid reasons,’ each nation, even though the people of those nations may hold exactly opposite views, fights what it calls a “just war.” Patriotism flourishes, and the churches are swept along, each religion ‘following the flag.’ The prominent Protestant church leader, Martin Niemoeller, said that ever since the days of the Roman emperors it has been this way in Christendom. “The church has never known an unjust war,” he explained, “but has justified always the war of her own sovereign and state.”32
The Catholic historian E. I. Watkin wrote:
“Painful as the admission must be, we cannot in the interest of a false edification or dishonest loyalty deny or ignore the historical fact that Bishops have consistently supported all wars waged by the government of their country. I do not know in fact of a single instance in which a national hierarchy has condemned as unjust any war . . . Whatever the official theory, in practice ‘my country always right’ has been the maxim followed in wartime by Catholic Bishops. . . . where belligerent nationalism is concerned they have spoken as the mouthpiece of Caesar.”33
Is it really true that the churches have “consistently supported all wars waged by the government of their country”? Has religion only posed as a force for good, but in truth been a backer of war and violence? What do the facts of history reveal?