President Bush and Vice President Cheney are both members of the United Methodist Church, as are more than 60 members of Congress and 8.2 million other Americans. But the church's bishops, when they speak politically, sound surprisingly more like Michael Moore or Noam Chomsky (neither of whom is known to be a Methodist).
The bishops met in November and nearly unanimously approved a resolution condemning the U.S. military presence in Iraq. A separate unofficial statement, signed by over half of the U.S. bishops, went further, denouncing the "unjust and immoral invasion and occupation" and charging that Americans are being "sent to Iraq to kill and be killed." In contrast to the harsh and lengthy denunciation of the U.S. presence in Iraq, the bishops also issued a short statement on Darfur. They urged prayer but carefully refrained from criticizing the Islamist Sudanese government for its genocidal campaign. Presumably, the bishops regard that situation as more complicated than Iraq's.
Why are the bishops of America's third-largest church condemning the United States for attempting to build democracy in Iraq? And why, at the same time, are they refusing to condemn the Sudanese regime's deliberate destruction of hundreds of thousands of lives in pursuit of an Islamic theocracy?
Fully answering those questions would involve a lengthy study of mainline Protestant theology in America over the last century. But in short: Mainline church elites moved towards pacifism after World War I. The 1960s crystallized their pacifism into anti-Americanism, and mainline church agencies have consistently denounced U.S. military actions for nearly 40 years, from Vietnam to Iraq.
The Methodists, or at least their church elites, have historically been social activists. Abolitionism and prohibitionism, as the theology became more liberal, morphed into liberation theology and hostility to Western culture and the United States in particular. The church elites' hostility to capitalism has generally prevented them from criticizing Marxist regimes and their multiculturalism has prevented them from criticizing Islamic regimes. Which leaves the bishops to quite even-handedly "lament the continued warfare by the United States, coalition forces, and the insurgents" in Iraq.
The bishops' official statement faults the U.S. government for claiming that Saddam Hussein's regime had weapons of mass destruction and ties to al Qaeda. It also blames the United States for the "denigration of human dignity" and "gross violations of human rights of prisoners of war." They do not either mention Saddam Hussein's human rights record or speculate on the type of repressive regime that would likely result if the insurgents in Iraq prevailed. The official statement urges the withdrawal of all U.S. military troops from Iraq, while seeking a greater United Nations role.
The unofficial statement, signed by 96 bishops, was framed as an ostensible apology for their "complicity" in the Iraq war. "In the face of the United States Administration's rush toward military action based on misleading information, too many of us were silent," they write. Now they want to "repent."
But they do not give themselves enough credit: The bishops have hardly been "silent." They have now issued three official denunciations of the U.S. presence in Iraq in as many years. None of the bishops has publicly defended the war, and one was arrested in a demonstration against the war outside the White House. Another bishop joined Cindy Sheehan in her performance outside the Bush ranch in Texas this summer.
Americans are being "sent to Iraq to kill and be killed," while thousands of Iraqis are "needlessly" dying, the bishops charge in the unofficial statement, adding that security depends not on "weapons of war" but helping the poor and vulnerable to "flourish."
They explain that they are praying for war to end everywhere, for "justice to roll down like waters," for an end to "prejudice toward people of other faiths and cultures," and for continuing "dialogue." They want to move beyond "caution rooted in self-protection" and "misguided public policies" in favor of "self-emptying love" and "unity in a world of diversity."
President Bush, like many of his fellow United Methodists, has mostly ignored the bishops' political posturing. (Although he did meet with a small group of prelates from the church last spring.) The secular media has likewise given their musings little coverage. Sadly, when simply they echo old bromides of the secular Left, the leaders of America's third largest religious body deserve to be ignored.
Mark D. Tooley directs the United Methodist committee at the Institute on Religion and Democracy.
By Mark D. Tooley