Thou Shalt Not Nuke

The recent agreement to reduce the number of U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear warheads from around 6,000 to between 2,200 and 1,700 sounded like good news. But rather than requiring the dismantling of those warheads, it allows them to be kept in storage—like unloading a shotgun, but keeping the shells in the closet. It's safer and prevents accidents, but in crisis or anger the weapon can still be used. And the real Catch-22 is that the reductions aren't required to take place until 2012, the year the treaty expires. Perhaps celebrations of progress are premature.

Most important, the treaty does not forestall the Bush administration's plans for new weapons and new potential targets. As a "senior administration official" told the press, "What we have now agreed to do under the treaty is what we wanted to do anyway."

When the Bush administration's Nuclear Posture Review was leaked in early March, a flurry of news stories followed. The "war on terrorism" had suddenly gone nuclear! Details of the plan that included the possible targeting of non-nuclear states, the possibility of a first strike use of nuclear weapons, and the development of a "bunker-buster" nuclear weapon that could penetrate deep underground to destroy storage facilities were explained and critiqued.

Yet in the months since then, very little has been heard, other than from national peace organizations. Peace Action, the Council for a Livable World, Friends Committee on National Legislation, Pax Christi, and others issued press releases and action alerts. They have played a crucial role in keeping the issue alive. Indeed, these activist groups mounted a campaign that helped lead to the Senate Armed Services Committee cutting the administration's request for $15.5 million to begin work on the "bunker buster."

But where is the moral voice of the churches? Many denominations condemned nuclear weapons during the 1980s and became the heart of the nuclear freeze and disarmament movements. The Catholic Bishops' pastoral letter "The Challenge of Peace" was one of the first major church nuclear-age peace documents, and it was followed by many others. The churches' opposition to nuclear weapons was taken very seriously by the Reagan administration.

However, since the revelation of the administration's nuclear policies, most of the churches have been curiously silent. There has not been a strong outcry of protest, but the sleeping giant may be awakening.

The United Methodist Council of Bishops recently passed a resolution reiterating their previous stand against new nuclear weapons and noted that "under the heading of ‘war against terrorism,' ethical restraint has been compromised." They then resolved to "be persistent" in seeking to meet with President Bush to share their concerns.

A letter coordinated by the Interfaith Committee for Nuclear Disarmament and signed by 23 representatives of religious organizations has also been sent to President Bush. It asked the president "to send the Nuclear Posture Review back to the drawing boards and have the Pentagon planners come up with a plan that will truly end the MAD [mutually assured destruction] doctrine and will steadily reduce the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. military and foreign policy," and proposed that nuclear disarmament objectives be incorporated into the Nuclear Posture Review.

The letter concluded by urging Bush "to exercise your presidential leadership in the direction of diminishing the role of nuclear weapons and eventually eliminating them from Earth." It is a sentiment that more churches must once again echo. The need for renewed efforts toward disarmament and the abolition of nuclear weapons is greater than ever.

Duane Shank is issues and policy adviser for Sojourners.

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