Syria, War and America’s Christians

Syria, War and America’s Christians September 19, 2013

By Mark Tooley


The prospect of U.S. military action against Syria’s dictatorship has unusually united in opposition nearly all U.S. church and major Christian voices who have publicly spoken to the issue. Such uniformity is very unusual, and this episode may be a first.

Of course, liberal led Mainline Protestant denominations, along with liberal Catholic orders among others, are functionally pacifist and have opposed virtually all U.S. military actions since Vietnam.  Unlike liberal Protestants, evangelical groups and officials don’t routinely address foreign and military policy, instead focusing mostly on social issues.  But polls have long shown that typically evangelicals have supported an assertive U.S. foreign and military policy.

Long-time Southern Baptist political spokesman Richard Land supported the U.S. led overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.  Iraq War critics commonly alleged that President George W. Bush’s bedrock core of evangelical supporters were the key constituency for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But this time, newly appointed Southern Baptist spokesman Russell Moore has declared that a proposed Syria military action does not meet Just War criteria.  Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, which does not ordinarily address foreign policy, has publicly agreed.  So too has California megachurch pastor and bestselling author Rick Warren. The much less conservative National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) released a poll of its 100 member board showing a strong majority opposing Syria military action.

Representing America’s third largest religious body, Moore, an ethicist and theologian, readily agreed that Syria’s dictatorship is “lawless and tyrannical,” so action against it would be just. But other Just War criteria have not been met, such as a likelihood of prevailing: “Right now, it seems the Administration is giving an altar call for limited war, without having preached the sermon to make the case.” He also cited “al-Qaeda sympathizers” in the opposition and their impact on Syrian Christians if they were further empowered.

Moore did not echo Libertarian critiques of U.S. military action, instead saying: “I agree with the President on the moral urgency of Syria, and I morally reject the crypto-isolationist voices that tell us, in every era, to tend to ‘America First’ and leave defenseless people around the world on their own.”

Baylor University historian Thomas Kidd, himself a conservative Southern Baptist, explained several reasons for evangelicals opposing U.S. military action in Syria: opposition to President Obama, war-weariness, and concern for Syrian Christians. Interestingly, Kidd also cites waning evangelical Dispensationalist beliefs about Israel’s role in the end times that has persuaded many evangelicals to strongly support U.S. policies helpful to Israel.

Maybe so. But concerns about Syrian Christians seem especially important among evangelicals. Typically U.S. evangelicals have not identified with or paid serious heed to the plight of Middle East Christians, who are mostly Orthodox, Oriental or Catholic. Recent turmoil in Egypt and Syria, as well as the earlier mass exodus of Iraqi Christians escaping from sectarian war, has ignited expanded interest in previously what were deemed exotic Christian communities. Under assault by Islamist violence, and with few remaining refuges, Middle East Christians are gaining new found interest and sympathy from U.S. evangelicals whose religious persecution interest in past decades focused on mostly communist countries.

Such new compassion in the U.S. for previously mostly ignored persecuted Christians is one of the very few upsides of recent Middle East strife. So too is a possibly more serious examination by evangelicals of Just War teaching. Fairly or not, evangelicals have been accused of reflexive support for U.S. military action. With Syria, evangelicals are defying the stereotype.

Yet reactions to Syria raise new questions for evangelicals especially about how to address U.S. foreign and military policy within a serious Christian Just War perspective. Many have cited statements by Middle East Christians leaders opposing U.S. strikes, opposition that no doubt is deeply sincere. But as a besieged and small minority, Middle East Christians can only speak in ways that don’t further undermine their position. Public opposition by them to U.S. and Israel is common. To do otherwise would be dangerous.

Political counsel from local church leaders in any region will reflect varying degrees of self-interest, coercion, limited wisdom and access to information as well as nationalist loyalties. Overseas Christians are no less fallible than U.S. Christians.

More complicated is whether U.S. Christians should prioritize U.S. interests, or even global security, over local Christians. German Christians during World War II, even if anti-Nazi, did not welcome the U.S. Eighth Air Force or U.S. troops crossing the Rhine. Russian Christians in the Cold War era Soviet Union officially denounced the U.S. and supported their regime. They had little choice, of course, but their statements may at times have been sincere. The defeat of Nazi Germany would have been nearly impossible without U.S. alliance with the Soviet Union, possibly the most murderous persecutor of Christians in history.

Finally, U.S. Christians, evangelical or otherwise, probably need to rethink and update the Just War tradition in an era of non-state terrorism, failed states, and proliferating weapons of mass destruction. Pacifist and pseudo pacifist church voices, some espousing “just peacemaking,” are increasingly popular but largely irrelevant to actual statecraft. Security is a moral imperative, and Christians are obliged to offer practical counsel in situations, like Syria, where there are no blatantly clear moral answers.


Mark Tooley
Institute on Religion and Democracy
1023 15 St, NW, Suite 601
Washington, DC 20005-2620
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  • frjohnmorris

    There is no such a thing as a just war. According to the teachings of Christ war is always evil. It is only due to the excessive influence of Augustine that the just war theory entered Western Christian theology. All war is evil. Sometimes it is a lesser evil than allowing a tyrant like Hitler to conquer Europe and murder millions. But just like you get dirty when you pull weeds from your garden, you get spiritually dirty if you engage in war. That is why Eastern Orthodox Christian soldiers are always penanced if they kill another person even during battle and must come to Confession before they can receive Holy Communion.
    The reality is that American policy in the Middle East has almost destroyed ancient Christian communities. After the American invasion of Iraq Islamic militants have almost destroyed the Christian community in Iraq.In Syria,the rebels are infiltrated by Islamic radicals with ties to Al Qaeda whose goal is to turn Syria into an Islamic state governed by Islamic Sharia Law which treats Christians as inferiors and forces them to pay tribute (jizya) to their Muslim superiors. The US backed rebels have killed Christian clergy, desecrated ancient Churches and monasteries, driven the Christians out of Homs and kidnapped the Greek Orthodox Metropolitan and Syriac Orthodox Bishop of Aleppo. Last month they tried to assassinate the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch by firing on St. Mary’s Cathedral in Damascus while the clergy were distributing food to the needy. Most recently they have destroyed both Christian Churches, one Orthodox and one Catholic, and terrorized the nuns and orphans at the ancient Monastery of St.Thekla in Maaloula. It is competely incomprehensible why the Obama Administration is sending arms and other aid to a group that is allied with the people who gave us 9/11 and other acts of terrorism.

    Fr. John W. Morris

    • RonMar

      Johnny, no, no, please try to get some things right. There is no such thing as a Palestine, never has been, is not ever likely to be one, thus no Palestinians ever before, now or in the future. You know that is true, thus you have refused to answer my questions or meet my challenges on those issues.
      There is such a thing as just war, e.g., if your Arab Muslim, islamic jihadists that you support keep pushing to take over the world for Allah, etc., including taking over Israel and murdering all Jews and Christians who do not convert to Islam.
      So obviously in your posts it is apparent you have never read the Bible with understanding despite your Ph.D. and many high-faluting, gasbag, blowhard titles.
      You will see the real Jesus for the first time when He returns to wreak God’s vengeance as described in the Bible in many places.
      It is totally “comprehensible why … Obama … is sending arms and other aid to a group that is allied with the people [of] 9/11 and other acts of terrorism.” Obama is a Marxist-Islamist born and raised, and still heavily-involved with both of those evil groups among us.
      Given the conflicting, confused ways you post here it is no surprise the Islamic jihadists you aid, abet and support against Jews, Israel, other Christians and other people religious or not in Israel, the Islamic jihadists are doing in people like you in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere.
      You are so confused, close-minded, refusing to learn, even to discuss rationally like an adult the realities of the region and the world, you cannot be trusted. You leave them no choice but to eliminate those like you and you.

  • I wholeheartedly agree with Fr. John Morris. All war and killing under any circumstance is evil. This doesn’t mean that Christians never engage in it, like Fr. John says it is a matter of lesser evils. This may be why Christians vacillate over time on when and where to go to war. Mr. Tooley, you make some good points in his analysis of how evangelicals are grappling with the issue of intervention in Syria: lack of meeting “just war” criteria; war-weariness; involvement by al-Qaeda; a declining belief in dispensationalist-motivated favor for Israel; and a new awareness and concern for Middle Eastern Christians. Yet, i take exception to your use of media talking points like “opposition to President Obama” and favorably quoting Moore equating libertarian positions with “crypto-isolationist voices that tell us, in very era, to tend to ‘America First’ and leave defenseless people around the world on their own.” First, from my close following of conservative pundits, conservative evangelical blogs, conservative talk shows, and tea party activists those who disapprove of the Administration’s leadership do so based on Obama’s policies not against him personally. It is sloppy at best and malicious at worst to further this biased narrative. Second, it is intellectually dishonest to disregard the serious “statecraft” arguments in favor of nonintervention in an otherwise honest discussion. Certainly, there are those with knee-jerk reactions to the overreach of US power in the world who are simply tired of us trying to fix everyone else to our own exclusion. But that isn’t who the argument is with. There are strong historical, geopolitical, and pragmatic reasons for taking a non-interventionist position. As far back as George Washington who warned us against foreign entanglements to 20th century policies like attempting to choose winners and losers by interfering with other nations’ internal affairs. Two examples: the CIA engineered coup of the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddegh of Iran and putting the Shah in control; and siding with and arming the Mujahideen turned Taliban in Afghanistan. There is strong evidence to prove that the turmoil we are in today is a direct result of the blowback by Islamic extremists from US policies of intervention in Islamic lands. This is not a matter of “blaming America” but is a valid political theory seriously proposed. These are just two of many well-founded arguments (many others can be found at and on which a non-interventionist position is based. To dismiss libertarian arguments as “crypto-isolationist” and simply “America First” is to undercut the conversation and foster alienation between well-meaning Christians. Many Christians of all traditions are realizing they can’t be dismissed. Perhaps a serious consideration of non-interventionist arguments would mitigate the tortuous choices being made to between “lesser evils” to go to war and trying to find apologetics like the “just war” theory to justify them.