Originally created 05/17/03

Ethics expert assails religious doves on U.S. war policy



In the midst of the Iraq war, seven bishops and a hundred other members of the United Methodist Church joined in "calling our brother George W. Bush to repent."

"Brother" Bush is their denomination's most famous member and its first White House occupant in a century.

The Methodists' April advertisement said the Bush administration's "notion of redemptive violence is incongruent with Christ and his teaching" and that U.S. policies display "the spiritual forces of wickedness."

The ad reflected the sort of thing numerous U.S. Christian leaders have said in opposition to the Iraq war. And it typified the thinking that Jean Bethke Elshtain assails in her latest book, Just War Against Terror: The Burdens of American Power in a Violent World (Basic Books).

Dr. Elshtain, a religious thinker to reckon with, is the Rockefeller professor of social ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Her book carries endorsements from Henry Kissinger, Francis (The End of History) Fukuyama and Cardinal Francis George.

In Dr. Elshtain's view, too many religious leaders and university professors are captive to idealism and fuzzy thinking that falls far short of the practical, real-world morality exemplified by Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971).

Niebuhr, a one-time pacifist, famously changed his mind and goaded fellow liberal Protestants to confront the dangerous threat from Hitler before Pearl Harbor and America's entry into World War II.

Vietnam, of course, did much to damage the moral consensus that Niebuhr and others built. Dr. Elshtain opposed that war and the government lies that accompanied it. But she says today's critics of American military action are stuck in a 1960s "time warp."

After Sept. 11, she asserts, "it would be the height of irresponsibility and a dereliction of duty" if public officials did not respond. At stake, she believes, are basic human freedoms in many nations.

Though a postwar summit of interfaith leaders demanded that the United States hand over control of Iraq to the United Nations, Dr. Elshtain is highly dubious about that organization's track record in building world tranquility.

She believes the United States can and must become "the leading guarantor of a structure of stability and order in a violent world. We cannot do this alone, but it will not happen at all without U.S. commitment. It is that simple."