Summer 1999, Vol. 2, No. 2

Contents Page,
Vol. 2, No. 2


Quick Links
to other articles
in this issue:
A Different Spiritual Politics

Preaching the Word in Littleton

On the Beat: In Lagos, Religion’s Above the Fold

Something Wiccan This Way Comes

The Diallo Killings: Sharpton Ecumenistes

Methodism’s Time of Trials

Spiritual Politicking and the IRS

Correspondence: Was the Church Arson Story Legit?

Kosovo: A Confusion of Tongues

by Anthony Burke Smith

When Washington Post religion reporter Hanna Rosin wrote April 3 that calls by Christian leaders for an Easter cease-fire in the NATO bombing campaign had "left the religious community as one of the few unified voices speaking out against Western military involvement in Yugoslavia," she was mistaking a moment of unity for a consensus that did not, in fact, exist. Easter cease-fires notwithstanding, the responses by American religious leaders to the war in Kosovo have been all over the place, reflecting their diverse moral traditions on war and armed conflict.

On March 25, the Church World Service Unit of the National Council of Churches called for an immediate end to the NATO bombing and a negotiated settlement to the crisis by the United Nations. At the same time, the international equivalent of the NCC, the World Council of Churches, also denounced the bombing, and its General Secretary, Rev. Dr. Konrad Raiser wrote the three WCC member churches in Yugoslavia "to express our profound emotion" regarding the NATO attacks.

The NCC’s and WCC’s stance against the NATO bombing in part reflected the fact that their membership includes Orthodox churches, to which the majority of Serbs belong. Without question, however, the stop-the-bombing sentiment was the authentic conviction of the mainline Protestant leadership, as witnessed by the delegation led by Rev. Jesse Jackson and NCC Secretary General Joan Brown Campbell that won the release of three captured American soldiers May 2.

But American Protestantism is no monolith. Los Angeles Times religion writer Teresa Watanabe, who was particularly sensitive to the diversity of religious voices, quoted Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, as supporting stronger military force: "I believe the president and political leaders need to go before the people and make a case for much more significant intervention."

Meanwhile, on April 1 eight American Roman Catholic cardinals issued letters to Presidents Clinton and Milosevic respectively calling for an end to the fighting and a resumption of diplomatic negotiations. Yet Catholic sentiment was not as clear as this gesture would suggest. Regarding the moral dimension of the war, Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, president of the U.S Catholic Conference’s International Policy Committee, admitted, "It’s a mess."

American Catholic leaders and thinkers sought to make their way through the mess by drawing upon their long-standing natural law tradition of just-war theory. On the basis of this theory, some suggested that the war might have a legitimate moral basis. Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, for instance, said in an April 13 interview with Ray Suarez on NPR’s Talk of the Nation that the failed efforts of diplomacy and the suffering of the Kosovar Albanians "nudge the conflict into the just war category." Similarly, the Los Angeles Times’s Watanabe quoted noted Catholic commentator and priest Andrew Greeley in early April regarding the justness of NATO’s actions in Yugoslavia: "It is a close call, therefore, as to whether the attacks constitute a just war...Maybe. Maybe not." Rev. Gregory Coiro of the archdiocese of Los Angeles, however, told Watanabe, "Personally, I have difficulty seeing this as a just response....If you look strictly at the criteria, and ask what nation has been attacked, it looks like NATO has attacked Yugoslavia. It’s very difficult to say who is the aggressor here."

Jewish leaders have tended to be less equivocal in their responses. Many have supported the bombings, seeing the ethnic cleansing by the Serbs as an all-too familiar reminder of their own history in Europe. Two weeks into the NATO bombing, the American Jewish Congress noted the "pervasive suffering and despair on a scale unmatched in Europe since the time of the Nazis. As Jews we are familiar with that kind of pain. And we cannot be silent." The Congress reiterated its support for NATO and suggested that troops may be necessary to end the crisis in Yugoslavia: "[A] proper level of force now can do much to assure a more humane Europe in the years to come."

Because Orthodox and Muslim groups had religious ties to their co-religionists on either side in Serbia and Kosovo, media coverage took special note of their views. The Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post reported Orthodox opposition to the war in their overviews of religious response to the crisis. On March 31, John Rivera of the Baltimore Sun quoted Archbishop Sypridon, head of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, protesting the NATO bombing: "We don’t think it will provide us with a solution....We think that will cause more bloodshed and that would even harden the positions of the two parties involved." The Seattle Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and the Chicago Sun-Times also reported on local Orthodox opposition to the NATO campaign.

By contrast, Jeffrey Gettleman of the Los Angeles Times quoted Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the council on American-Islamic Relations, saying, "Muslims very often feel they are the victims of U.S. foreign policy. Kosovo is a first because the American intention is to help the Muslims." Another Times piece quoted a youth counselor at the Islamic Society of Orange County: "For oh-so-long, Islam and Muslims have been defined as terrorist in nature, but now we’ve got a great opportunity to draw international attention to the fact that we’re religious and peaceful."

Once upon a time, the position of American religious leadership vis-a-vis the nation’s wars was more unified. World War I found the country’s religious groups thoroughly infected by the war fever that characterized the nation’s first major overseas involvement of the century. Afterwards, in the 1920s and 1930s, religious leaders reacted against this frenzy and championed peace at all costs. During World War II, they supported the national cause while seeking to avoid the excesses of World War I’s zealous patriotism.

The early Cold War enjoyed substantial religious support; indeed, it signaled a heyday of national religious consensus on matters of war and peace. Mainline Protestantism was dominated by the great mid-century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s "Christian realism," which legitimated the use of military force. Similarly, the anti-Communist ultra-patriotism of New York Cardinal Francis Spellman gave clear Catholic support to America’s global battle against the Soviet Union.

But the Vietnam War engendered a significant fracturing of the religious consensus that supported America’s Cold War military ventures. An intensive soul-searching on the part of Mainline Protestant (and some Catholic) leaders led to a questioning of the morality of any armed conflict. And for a quarter-century, while some support the U.S. role as military superpower, Mainline leaders for the most part have continued to reiterate their opposition to war-making in general and American war-making in particular. In the present case, they showed themselves out of step with the American people, who generally supported, if not enthusiastically, the U.S. military intervention in Kosovo.

Since Vietnam there has been no clear moral consensus on the part of America’s religious leaders concerning the use of military force, and journalists looking to find it will find themselves frustrated. The big religion story here may be the marginalization of Mainline Protestantism. The religious tradition that for most of the century represented the moral voice of American society in war and peace at the end of the millennium found itself a bit player.