Why? Why have so many religious people gotten it so wrong? As I have explained in many of my articles on Christianity and war over the years, there are many reasons: thinking that the war in Iraq was in retaliation for the 9/11 attacks, believing that Saddam Hussein was another Hitler, supposing that Iraq was a threat to the United States, seeing the war in Iraq as a modern-day crusade against Islam, assuming that the United States needed to protect Israel from Iraq, viewing Bush as a messiah figure, equating the Republican Party with the party of God, blindly following the conservative movement, deeming the American state to be a divine institution, failing to separate the divine sanction of war against the enemies of God in the Old Testament from the New Testament ethic that taught otherwise, having a profound ignorance of history and primitive Christianity, reading too much into the mention of soldiers in the New Testament, possessing a warped “God and Country” complex, holding a “my country right or wrong” attitude, and adopting the mindset that brute force is barbarism when individuals use it, but honorable when nations are guilty of it.
I believe the two greatest reasons religious people have gotten things so wrong are American exceptionalism and American militarism.
Many Christians are guilty of nationalistic and political idolatry. They have bought into a variety of American nationalism that has been called the myth of American exceptionalism. This is the idea that the government of the United States is morally and politically superior to all other governments, that American leaders are exempt from the bad characteristics of the leaders of other countries, that the U.S. government should be trusted even as the governments of other countries should be distrusted, that the United States is the indispensable nation responsible for the peace and prosperity of the world, that the motives of the United States are always benevolent and paternalistic, that foreign governments should conform to the policies of the U.S. government, that most other nations are potential enemies that threaten U.S. safety and security, and that the United States is morally justified in imposing sanctions or launching military attacks against any country that refuses to conform to our dictates. These are the tenets of American exceptionalism.
The result of this American exceptionalism is a foreign policy that is aggressive, reckless, belligerent, and meddling. This is why U.S. foreign policy results in discord, strife, hatred, and terrorism toward the United States. We would never tolerate another country engaging in an American-style foreign policy. How many countries are allowed to build military bases and station troops in the United States? It is the height of arrogance to insist that the United States alone has the right to garrison the planet with bases, station troops wherever it wants, intervene in the affairs of other countries, and be the world’s policeman, fireman, social worker, security guard, mediator, and babysitter.
The other reason religious people have gotten things so wrong is American militarism. Americans love the military, and American Christians are no exception. There is an unseemly alliance that exists between certain sectors of Christianity and the military. Even Christians who are otherwise sound in the faith, who treasure the Constitution, who don’t support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and who oppose an aggressive U.S. foreign policy get indignant when you question the institution of the military. It doesn’t seem to matter the reason for each war or intrusion into the affairs of another country. It doesn’t seem to matter how long U.S. troops remain after the initial intervention. It doesn’t seem to matter how many foreign civilians are killed or injured. It doesn’t seem to matter how many billions of dollars are spent by the military. It doesn’t even seem to matter what the troops are actually doing – Americans in general, and American Christians in particular, believe in supporting the troops no matter what. Americans are repulsed by the serial killer who, to satisfy the most basest of desires, dismembers his victims; but revere the bomber pilot in the stratosphere who, flying above the clouds, never hears the screams of his victims or sees the flesh torn from their bones. Killing women and children from five feet is viewed as an atrocity, but from five thousand feet it is a heroic act. It is sometimes suspicious when a soldier kills up close, but never when he launches a missile from afar.
Christians of all branches and denominations have a love affair with the military. To question the military in any way – its size, its budget, its efficiency, its bureaucracy, its contractors, its weaponry, its mission, its effectiveness, its foreign interventions – is to question America itself. One can condemn the size of government, but never the size of the military. One can criticize federal spending, but never military spending. One can denounce government bureaucrats, but never military brass. One can depreciate the welfare state, but never the warfare state. One can expose government abuses, but never military abuses. One can label domestic policy as socialistic, but never foreign policy as imperialistic.
It is the U.S. government that is the greatest threat to American life, liberty, property, and peace – not the leaders or the military or the people of Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, or Yemen. And as James Madison said: “If tyranny and oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy.” Christians should vigorously dissent the next time some warmongering politician says there is some great evil in the world that must be stamped out by the U.S. military. As John Quincy Adams said: “America . . . goes not abroad seeking monsters to destroy.” Christians should stop regarding the state’s acts of aggression as benevolent. Christians should stop presuming divine support for U.S. military interventions. And because just war theory merely allows Christians to make peace with war, they should reject it just as they would any theory of just piracy or just terrorism or just murder. It is Christians that should be leading the way toward peace and a foreign policy of nonintervention. It is Christians that should be leading the way toward the ideas of Ron Paul.