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Issue Date:  February 4, 2005

Does God support democracy?

The president's theological justification for war in Iraq demands scrutiny


The presidential election and inauguration of George W. Bush are over, but the conversation about how Catholics should participate in public life in America is probably just beginning. One of the more curious things that happened in the Catholic debate over morality and politics leading up to the presidential election was that moral questions pertaining to the Iraq war disappeared almost entirely from the conversation.

This happened for many reasons, but the most important was the prominence given to other issues such as abortion, stem cell research and gay marriage, about which church teaching was said to be perfectly clear. Since the merits of the Iraq war were argued by Catholics on the basis of just war theory, this was seen to be different from these other issues. Reasonable people could differ, the argument went, about whether a particular war -- like the Iraq war -- was just or unjust. While the church could give its view on such matters, there was room for disagreement among the faithful.

But something important is overlooked in all of this. And this is that the justification for the war in Iraq is, in part, a theological one. This has been the case from the start, but has now become more important since the original justifications for the war -- the threat of weapons of mass destruction and Iraqi ties to al-Qaeda -- have been discredited.

Because of this, the president’s argument for the war has come to rest primarily on the spread of democracy and freedom in the Middle East. And he has repeatedly linked this justification to God’s plans for the world. “Freedom is not America’s gift to the world,” he is fond of saying. “It is God’s gift to humanity.” He reiterated this in the last presidential debate, when Bob Schieffer asked him about his statement that he had “checked with a higher authority” than his own father before the invasion of Iraq. The president responded, “I believe that God wants everybody to be free. That’s what I believe. And that’s been a part of my foreign policy. In Afghanistan, I believe that the freedom there is a gift from the Almighty. And I can’t tell you how encouraged I am to see freedom on the march.”

The president stands in a long American tradition that links our nation’s history with the plans of divine providence. This began with the Puritans and the shining “city on a hill.” Subsequent Protestant Christians have also tended to see the divine hand in the emerging democratic traditions of our country. Closer to our own time, a kind of civil religion developed, with presidents making general references to “God” in their speeches as a way to articulate common values. But George W. Bush has gone beyond this longer tradition by explicitly linking God’s plans with our country’s foreign policy and, most recently, with the decision to preemptively invade Iraq.

At times the president’s views sound close to themes in the Bible. Didn’t Moses lead the Israelite people from slavery to freedom, after all? And didn’t Paul emphasize that new life in Christ makes us free, indeed? A more careful reading will remind us, however, that after the Israelites were out of Egypt, they were ruled by judges and kings for several centuries. Hardly a model democracy. Jesus never mentions democracy or the free market. His focus is elsewhere, primarily on the way the desire for riches and power over others can blind us to the most important things. There is nothing in the teaching of the Catholic church that would support the president’s claim that God is behind the march to freedom in a unique way. In fact, the church was quite suspicious of such enthusiasm through much of the 19th century and the early 20th century, a stance that contributed to the emergence of strong anti-Catholic sentiments in the United States.

To take the Iraq war off the table for discussion because it is seen as something about which reasonable people can disagree is to adopt, in effect, a stance of moral relativism in relation to the war that most pro-life, pro-family people would not be able to stomach on other issues.

Even more disturbing, it is to stand quietly and passively by while the God of Christianity is misrepresented as the God of the United States of America and all of its civic and political traditions, who sanctions the preemptive invasion of other countries in the name of freedom. When such fundamental questions about right and wrong and who God is are at stake, silence cannot remain an option for Catholics in America.

Jesuit Fr. Patrick Kelly is currently writing his dissertation on theology, ethics and culture at Claremont Graduate University’s School of Religion.

National Catholic Reporter, February 4, 2005

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