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At war
Issue Date:  April 25, 2003

Church leaders’ antiwar message fails in the pews

Religion News Service

It has been called organized religion’s most unified antiwar stance since the latter days of the Vietnam conflict.

But public opinion polls show the spiritual movement opposing war in Iraq has had little impact on churchgoers, much less on the American public, both of which overwhelmingly support both the U.S.-led invasion and President Bush.

Leaders of mainline Protestant denominations, including the Episcopal church, the United Church of Christ and the United Methodist church, opposed war, and Pope John Paul II worked passionately against it.

Largely overlooked in all this was the reality that the flocks didn’t agree with their shepherds. According to a February Gallup Poll, two of every three Americans who attend church at least once a week supported war.

Among Catholics, disagreeing with the Vatican and American bishops is nothing new, said Fr. Arthur Kennedy, executive director of the ecumenical office for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“Look at the abortion issue,” Kennedy said. “American Catholics are basically the same as everyone else, even though the church is constantly making the case against abortion.”

But Jeffrey Marlett, assistant professor of religious studies at the College of St. Rose, in Albany, N.Y., said the falling credibility of Catholic leadership is a factor in shaping opinions on the war.

“The church’s sex crisis is percolating in the background on this,” said Marlett, whose specialty is American Catholic history. “When the Vatican or the American bishops make statements on justice and peace, those words ring a little hollow now.”

In Albany, Marlett said, Catholic parishioners are walking out on sermons declaring the war unjust. “If folks don’t like the message they’re hearing, they’ll move someplace else where they like it,” he said.

Religious conservatives see the split between church leaders and congregants as evidence that a sometimes quiet majority of regular churchgoers -- even in moderate to liberal denominations -- tilt right on many major political issues.

“The mainline churches have suffered a blow to their relevancy in America that will take them more than a generation to recover from,” said Rabbi Daniel Lapin, a conservative radio talk-show host from Mercer Island, Wash., who speaks frequently at Christian Coalition conferences.

But the Rev. Robert Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, could hardly disagree more. In his view, the council, representing 36 denominations, is playing a prophetic role -- much as it did in the 1960s when it took a stand for civil rights.

“None of the Old Testament prophets had a majority,” said Edgar, a United Methodist minister and a former Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania. “My position is that prophetic voices are always way out ahead of the congregation. Those willing to speak out should not expect automatic enthusiasm. They should understand pretty clearly that the rank and file take a little longer to focus and to follow.”

A nationwide survey March 13-16 by the Pew Research Center and the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life showed that 62 percent of Catholics and the same percentage of mainline Protestants support the war.

Luis Lugo, religion program director at the Pew Charitable Trusts in Philadelphia, called that “a significant gap” between church leaders and followers.

For years, other polls have shown mainline Protestant leaders to be significantly to the left of their members on the death penalty, affirmative action, defense spending and other issues. “Protestant church leaders ought to be concerned,” Lugo said. “That’s not a healthy long-term trend.”

But for the most part, church leaders seem more philosophical than worried.

A former president of the National Council of Churches, the Rev. M. William Howard Jr. of Newark, N.J., explained that church leaders have “an informed” and “critical assessment” of the war and the Bush administration’s justifications that church laity, relying on popular media, lacks.

While the religious right communicates to its audience through thousands of conservative radio stations, “mainline churches are completely out of that ballgame,” said Howard, pastor of Bethany Baptist Church, a largely African-American congregation.

Howard said African-Americans distrust Bush, and their opposition to the war reflects that. Nationally, only 36 percent of African-Americans support the invasion of Iraq, according to the Pew poll.

On the other hand, the Pew sample showed 77 percent of evangelical Christians supporting the war.

Those describing themselves as evangelical or born-again make up more than 40 percent of the American population, according to Gallup polls. Many of their churches are independent and nondenominational, meaning they have few leaders speaking for vast networks of congregations. Some Southern Baptist Convention leaders have spoken out in favor of the war, but most evangelical organizations have been relatively quiet on the issue.

National Catholic Reporter, April 25, 2003

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