The Common Good
October 2004

Divided by a Common Faith

by Tom Sine | October 2004

Evangelicals in the United States are increasingly estranged from their counterparts everywhere else.

As we race toward the 2004 presidential election,

As we race toward the 2004 presidential election, the United States is a deeply divided country. At the very center of this divide is a seriously polarized church—polarized by politics more than theology. The American church is not only split by contentious issues such as abortion and the sanctioning of gay unions, but also by issues of domestic and foreign policy.

For example, a Feb. 17 to 19, 2003, Gallup poll showed that those who defined themselves as members of the Religious Right were much more likely than the general public or even other active church-goers to support a pre-emptive war on Iraq. Those who called themselves evangelical or "born again" were also more likely to support the war than the general public, although at a more modest rate than the Religious Right.

Few Americans seem to realize that the church in other industrialized countries is not nearly as divided over this issue. In fact, most evangelical leaders in Britain, Australia, and New Zealand—in contrast to their American cousins—were opposed to the war. What accounts for this surprising difference between many American evangelical believers and their global siblings?

My wife, Christine, and I took the first United flight to Britain after the horror of Sept. 11 to attend a Micah Conference on integral mission at Oxford, sponsored by the World Evangelical Alliance. As the moderator, David Boul, opened the conference, he explained its purpose: to start a much-needed conversation among evangelicals from all over the world on how to integrate word-and-deed mission in a way that takes seriously the biblical call to justice and mercy.

Then he turned toward the handful of us Americans in the room and expressed his sincere sorrow at the consequences of the terrorist attack. He assured us that Christians all over the world were praying for us and our sense of loss and grief. He very gently reminded us that while this first terrorist attack within our own borders was a new experience for Americans, it was a fairly familiar reality for those from other countries attending the conference. He concluded by stating that while no one could deny the horror of the loss of innocent life in this attack, the conference focus was on the 25,000 innocents that die every day throughout our planet from hunger and malnutrition.

Evangelicals from other parts of the world not only have a different perspective on the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks than many American evangelicals, many of them also have a very different view of the decision by George W. Bush and Tony Blair to invade Iraq.

Christine and I flew to Melbourne, Australia, not long before the invasion of Iraq in 2003. On February 15, Melbourne was the first of some 600 cities around the world to participate in the largest set of anti-war rallies in history, involving some 10 million people across the globe who publicly expressed their opposition to the planned war in Iraq. An estimated 150,000 people marched in Melbourne in the largest protest that city had seen since the Vietnam War protests of the ’60s. We had the opportunity to talk with a number of evangelical leaders while we were in Melbourne. They not only all favored the anti-war protests, a number of them were involved with other church leaders, business leaders, and students in helping to organize the march.

How did evangelicals in other English-speaking countries view the war in Iraq? The Evangelical Alliance, the largest umbrella organization in Britain, representing more than a million evangelicals and nearly 7,000 churches, has spoken out in opposition to the war. Joel Edwards, the general director of the Alliance, wrote in a statement published February 2003, "We urge… President Bush and Prime Minister Blair to resist the temptation to declare war unilaterally...." Their statement began, "At a time when the world is widely presumed to be in a ‘countdown to war’ with Iraq, the Evangelical Alliance has reiterated the continued need for diplomacy to try and settle the dispute without a conflict which could destabilize the already delicate balance of international power."

Simon Jones, editor of the Third Way magazine, a Christian publication in Britain, said, "I’ve found Christian comment here in the UK to be almost unanimously anti-war.... In fact, I have found it difficult to find people who could write in favor of military intervention. Generally speaking, Christians here are determined to remind non-Christians that the theology that drives George Bush...is not something that the UK church identifies with."

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and a number of Anglican bishops in the United Kingdom have been highly critical of the Bush/Blair war in Iraq. One of the most vocal is N.T. Wright, the bishop of Durham and an evangelical scholar. Wright criticized George W. Bush and Tony Blair as political leaders "who still invoke the name of Jesus to support plans that look much more like those of Augustus." He also criticized Israel’s "savage" policies towards Palestinians.

Tim Costello, an evangelical leader and an advocate for the poor in Australia, has just taken over leadership of World Vision there. Costello spoke to a small group of his counterparts at World Vision U.S. in Seattle regarding the view of Australian Christians toward the war. He stated that "every church leader of every major church in Australia is against this war," including evangelical groups such as the Baptists.

In fact, Tom Frame—the Anglican Bishop to the Australian Defense Force—was the only Anglican bishop in Australia to support the war. Recently even he changed his viewpoint, as he explained June 18 in the Melbourne, Australia newspaper The Age.

"As the only Anglican bishop to have publicly endorsed the Australian government’s case for war," Frame wrote, "I now concede that Iraq did not possess weapons of mass destruction. It did not pose a threat to either its nearer neighbours or the United States and its allies.... Looking back on the events of the past 18 months I continue to seek God’s forgiveness for my complicity in creating a world in which this sort of action was ever considered by anyone to be necessary."

A group of Christian leaders in New Zealand, including top evangelicals, met on Sept. 10, 2002, in order "to share our deep anxiety over the U.S. threat of war against Iraq. We state unequivocally: Pre-emptive war is not a just war. The problem of terrorism cannot be used to justify an attack on Iraq." After the war began, New Zealand Christian leaders expressed their "deep grief at the destruction of human life...especially the death and disabling of so many innocent men, women, and children, along with military personnel. We state again our conviction that this war was launched without moral and legal legitimacy."

Of course there were evangelical believers in all these countries who supported the decision to go to war—but, unlike in America, these evangelicals are in the decided minority.

As some of the power has been handed back to leaders in Iraq, these Christian leaders from Commonwealth countries, who opposed the war, want to see what most people want to see—a stable and a peaceful Iraq. Christian leaders in New Zealand wrote, "Now, as the world turns its attention to the reconstruction of Iraq, we state unequivocally that peace must include justice; there will be no lasting peace without justice."

Evangelical leaders in Britain, Australia, and New Zealand have some very clear ideas about the best way to bring a just and lasting peace to the entire region, in particular the Israeli-Palestinian situation. They emphasize persuading President Bush to join Europeans in pursuing a much more evenhanded approach of bringing increased pressure on both the Israelis and Palestinians to resolve their differences. These leaders insist that only when a just two-state solution is achieved do we have a prayer of winning the war on terror and seeing a lasting peace in the Middle East.

Americans have long been "divided by a common language" from our friends in the Commonwealth. What is new is that evangelicals in the United States are increasingly divided by a common faith from evangelicals almost everywhere else. This growing global divide isn’t primarily theological—it is political. Why do U.S. evangelicals tend to hold such a different view regarding a broad range of political issues—including the war in Iraq—than their evangelical counterparts in the Commonwealth?

Part of what has changed the character of American evangelicalism is that leaders of the Religious Right—such as Jerry Falwell, Tim LaHaye, Pat Robertson, and James Dobson—took over leadership from more moderate evangelicals in the 1980s. When they did so, they fundamentally redefined the key issues in the United States and what the response of the evangelical faithful should be to these issues.

I have not found anything comparable to the Religious Right anywhere else on the planet. It is an American anomaly. This partially explains the growing divide in political opinion between American evangelicals and their cousins in the Commonwealth.

American evangelicals tend to subscribe to a revisionist understanding of the U.S. founding story that encourages them to view the United States as God’s unique redemptive agent in the world. Not surprisingly, this view of messianic nationalism makes it very easy for many American evangelicals to support the neoconservative doctrine endorsing the pre-emptive and redemptive use of violence to make the world a better place. Very few evangelicals around the world support either this view of American exceptionalism or this imperial use of pre-emptive violence to "improve" life on this planet.

Sociologist Donald Kraybill of Messiah College offers an important word for American evangelicals who have allowed right-wing fears and nationalistic dreams—rather than teachings of a biblical faith—to shape their Christian worldview. He wrote, "When public piety is surging, Christians must be careful to distinguish between the god of American civil religion and the God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. The God of...Jesus sends the rain on the just and the unjust. This God urges us to love our enemies, to bless those who curse us.... For this God there is no east or west, no political borders, no pet nations."

In response to this troubling divide in our global church, an international forum is needed, in which evangelicals (and other Christians) from the United States and around the world could sit down together to seek a biblically informed response to urgent and complex global issues. If such a forum were created, what would emerge would most surely look more like the transnational aspirations of God’s new order and less like the self-interested agenda of a particular nation state or political ideology—left or right.

Tom Sine is the author of Mustard Seed Vs. McWorld: Reinventing Life and Faith for the Future, co-author with Christine Sine of Living On Purpose: Finding God’s Best for Your Life, and co-founder with her of Mustard Seed Associates (www.msainfo.org).

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