The Roots of Evangelical Opposition to Syrian Intervention

The Roots of Evangelical Opposition to Syrian Intervention September 10, 2013

Last week I wrote about “Paleo Evangelicals and Syria,” explaining why many traditional evangelicals will not support intervention in Syria’s civil war. Evangelicals are hardly the only Christians opposing intervention; indeed, the Syria question has become one of the most remarkably unifying issues for progressive, Catholic, Orthodox, and evangelical Christians that I can ever recall. We may explain much of this Christian reluctance by a general opposition to war, especially among progressives and Catholics. Catholics and Orthodox Christians closely identify with the ancient Christian populations of the Middle East, too.

Many evangelicals of all stripes enthusiastically supported the American invasion of Iraq. What accounts for the difference ten years later? Several factors are at work:

  • Political: obviously, there are some Republican evangelicals who will not support intervention partly because President Obama supports it. Likewise, many anti-war liberals are strangely silent because it is President Obama, not George W. Bush, who is asking for military action.
  • War-weariness: evangelicals, as much as anyone else, have realized the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan. As powerful as America is, we cannot do everything: we cannot recreate other nations in our image; we cannot unilaterally enforce our political will by ratcheting up violence; we cannot (or should not) continue demanding that our armed forces engage in perpetual overseas wars.
  • Global mindset: although evangelicals do not typically identify with global denominations, they are not far behind Catholics and Orthodox believers in their sympathy for the suffering Christian communities of Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere, regardless of their theological differences with many Middle Eastern Christians.

A final factor that strikes me is that the evangelical opposition to intervention may signal the waning power of pro-Israel dispensationalism. My sense of the declining power of dispensationalism in politics runs counter to the views of those like Jason Bivins, who has suggested that apocalypticism explains American Christians’ fatalism about Syria. But he cites few specific examples of how this dispensational passivity actually works. Remember, evangelical apocalypticism was cited in 2003 to explain why evangelicals were so eager to go into Iraq.

A key point here is that Israel supports American intervention, and most American evangelicals don’t seem to care. There was a time when Israel’s opinion could directly determine that of many evangelicals, now Israel seems strangely sidelined in the American debate, at least among evangelicals. (Joel Rosenberg is a rather lonely example of an evangelical whose analysis of the Syria situation hinges on Israel, and, per USA Today, anecdotal evidence suggests to that apocalyptic books have seen a boost in recent weeks.)

In any case, this is truly a remarkable moment of widespread Christian unity on an important issue. We may not be able to agree on most other topics, but (ironically, given the appalling circumstances in Syria provoking the debate) this is one instance when a strong majority of American and global Christians seem united.

See also Jonathan Merritt’s articlesOn Syria Conflict, Three Christian Perspectives” and “NAE’s Leith Anderson: Evangelicals oppose strike against Syria

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  • John C. Gardner

    The issue of Syria is complex. We have been praying for peace and our concerned about the ancient Christian communities in countries such as Syria and Egypt. The continual years of war have emotionally and spiritually exhausted Paleo Evengelicals.

  • Nemo

    Doesn’t the doomsday prophecy advocated by many dispensationalists require Israel to wipe out Damascus permanently? If that’s the case, then instability in Syria leading to a war with Israel is exactly what the evangelicals who hold that theology would want.