Mea Culpa

Recently, President Bush released a 23-page booklet titled “National Strategy for Combating Terrorism.” With the release of this document, more than three years after the invasion of Iraq, now is a time for a sober reassessment of the Bush administration’s policies. This sort of critical self-examination is a salutary spiritual discipline and, in this particular case, long overdue. Nor should Christian conservatives, a constituency crucial to President Bush’s electoral victories, miss this opportunity to reflect on how we – and I would include myself under that sometimes misleading label – have been complicit in the administration’s mistakes.

The decision to intervene in and the deeply flawed way in which it was handled both graphically illustrate the dangers of hubris. Christians are supposed to know something about humility. Yet I was dismayed when a couple years ago I first glimpsed in church parking lots vehicles sporting red, white and blue bumper stickers emblazoned with the slogan: “The Power of Pride.” Was it not precisely this sort of martial pride that led us to entangle ourselves in the Iraqi morass? Apparently, few heed anymore the warnings of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr about confusing material prosperity or military might with virtue. While Niebuhr was a strong supporter of the democratic West’s struggle against totalitarian communism, he also took care to alert Americans about the danger of our “Messianic dreams” to spread liberal principles by flexing our military might and the “moral pride which creates a hazard to their realization.”

Speaking of virtue, the obscene abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib rightly garnered criticism from some Christians but unfortunately too many evangelicals actually excused the immoral behavior. Ironically, their sophistical arguments (“Just fraternity pranks!” etc.) would have gladdened the hearts of liberal moral relativists. How can we export civic virtue when our own culture has been so thoroughly corrupted by pornography and its attendant indulgences?

Second, we have been pulled too often into a wartime passion that lacks the sort of critical judgment that Christians (whom Christ called to be in this world but not of it) are supposed to exercise. Consequently, some Christians have simply become shills for the Republican Party. Surely no Christian should ever declare “My president right or wrong!” Yet prominent evangelical leaders endorsed Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court, even when she was patently under-qualified for the position. Our motives here were good; we hoped that, given her Christian faith, Miers would be inclined to protect the rights of the unborn. But our gullibility has not been lost on Republican Party operatives. Michael Scanlon, a former aide to Tom DeLay, reportedly referred twice in private communications to evangelical voters as “wackos” who could be easily manipulated and duped into voting against their own better principles with regard to gambling.   

Finally, we have confused partisanship with patriotism and mistaken jingoism with good citizenship. Too many of us appear uncomfortable about functioning within in a pluralistic, democratic order where legitimate dissent and criticism are accepted, indeed indispensable, elements. I’ve heard ministers pray from the pulpit that “the mouths of the President’s critics be stopped.” Recently, I saw a young man’s laptop that featured a colorful screensaver. It read (I’ve edited it here for family audiences):  “Liberal @#$%&*! should shut the *&%$#! up and let the military do its job!” This attitude (and not just the colorful language) ought to deeply trouble any Christian citizen.

Some of these mistakes by American Christians have been the product of simply reacting to the immoderate rhetoric of the Left. Some evangelicals get their news primarily from conservative talk radio that stereotypes dissenters as a lunatic fringe by focusing exclusively on the most extreme and abrasive voices (and don’t get me wrong, they are out there). Yet there is a difference between the sort of demonizing of fashionable in some circles and pursuing a Biblical realism about our own moral failings. There is a difference between vituperative personal attacks impugning the motives of our leaders and using Christian principles to evaluate carefully their policies.

The last three years have taught us that conservative Christians need to operate far more thoughtfully within the public square. That should enable us to better serve both our God and our republic’s common good.