Political Theology in Wartime

by John M. Frame

Prof. of Systematic Theology and Philosophy

Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, FL

Political figures, even the least devout, necessarily give attention to theology. For their own survival, first of all, they seek ways of appealing to each religious faction in their constituency without alienating others or those who profess nonreligion. But theological astuteness is also a requirement of high principle. For every legislator, judge, and executive must find some balance (in specific situations as well as general policy) between the Constitution’s separation of church and state and its equally emphatic guarantee of religious freedom. A just administration of the separateness of church and state requires a theological understanding of church; and protecting the freedom of religion requires an understanding of what religions are and what practices need protection.So politicians need theological knowledge even when they seek to maintain a neutral position among the religions and nonreligions. But some of us have claimed that theology is even more important than that in politics, because politics in fact can never be religiously neutral.1 In a broad sense, religion is any worldview that serves as an ultimate source of values. In that sense, everyone is religious, and every political decision is a religious one. Any such worldview will conflict with alternative views, whether they be called religions, philosophies, ideologies, or politics. On that view, every political decision is religious, informed by a theology.

Some may object to defining religion this broadly. Is it not something of a verbal trick thus to turn atheists, for example, into religious people? Of course, we may define terms any way we like, as long as those definitions serve clarity of communication. Sometimes it’s good to define religion more narrowly, to include only those who hold meetings for worship, etc. A broader definition, however, helps us to see that in many ways traditional religions, secular philosophies, and political ideologies are on the same footing. All of these serve as ultimate sources of value. None of them can be proved, given the presuppositions of a competitor. And all must, in the American system, receive protection and freedom.2

This perspective implies that every political leader must take pains, not only to understand the religions of others, but also to understand his own: to grasp clearly the theological principles that dictate his own values and govern his own actions in office. In the case of President Bush, these principles are Christian and evangelical. In our system, he may not treat the Bible as a sufficient justification for policy. But his actions as president ought to be consistent with his personal religious convictions, simply as a measure of his integrity.

A leader needs some theological sophistication also in the formulation of policy. Expediency sometimes seems to require ambiguous statements; but when ambiguity overwhelms clarity, public confidence declines.

Before Sept. 11, it was common for the media to take amusement in President Bush’s malapropisms, and he has had the good nature to accept the jokes, even to poke fun at himself. He would probably agree with most Americans that he is better at making and executing policy than in precisely formulating it. For the most part, however, his post-Sept. 11 statements have increased public confidence in his speaking and writing. There has been no unclarity in his general position: we are at war with terrorists, not with Islam. In that sense, the president maintains, the war against terrorism is not a religious war.

But of course in another sense it is. Those who attacked us on Sept. 11 acted out of what they took to be a Qur’anic mandate, a mission from Allah. If indeed God had commanded Al Qaeda to destroy American lives, how could we legitimately fight against them? Rather, on that theological assumption, our response should have been abject repentance for our misdeeds and surrender to the will of Allah. But in fact our government, and most Americans, even, I trust, most Muslims, have rejected that theological position. Our war on terrorism presupposes that the events of Sept. 11 were not based on divine revelation. So our war is not religiously neutral; it rests on the denial of a particular theological position. And our war, precisely speaking, is directed against all who hold that theological position: not only against the terrorists themselves, but also against those who give aid and comfort to them. Presumptively, not only those who can be legally convicted of terrorism, but all members of Al Qaeda and their sponsors, are enemies of the United States.So our war, though not against the whole of Islam, is certainly against one faction of it. The difficulty for the President and his advisors is to formulate this nuance clearly and correctly, and to formulate it consistently with his own religious convictions.

Let us consider some administration statements in this regard:

(1) The President has been criticized for using the term crusade. If the term refers merely to a war against a religious movement, it is precisely appropriate, and commentators should recognize that fact. But its connotations, dating to the medieval conflicts between Christianity and the whole of Islam, are sufficiently misleading to preclude its use.

(2) Some have criticized the administration’s use of evildoers to describe the terrorists as a term too theologically charged. Some have also thought that given the President’s own religious viewpoint, the term connotes theological error. From a Christian view, we are all evildoers (Rom. 3:23), deserving death at God’s hand (Rom. 6:23). This fact would seem to imply that we should not distinguish between evildoers and non-evildoers. But the Bible does sometimes distinguish in another sense between some who are wicked and others who are just (as in Psm. 7:9, 37:12, 32). Here the just are not sinlessly perfect, but they are people who are trusting God and seeking to follow his commands. And the wicked, the evildoers, in this second sense, certainly include those who kill innocent people in the name of a false religious revelation.

Although some confusion is possible, I do not think it wrong to describe the terrorists as evildoers. We regularly use that term, with or without a high degree of religious awareness, to describe people who have committed especially heinous acts. And, to the extent that the term does carry theological connotations, those are consistent with the religious nature of the present war.

(3) Did Vice President Cheney err in saying that terrorists would face “the full wrath of the United States?” Does not wrath belong to God alone? In the ultimate sense yes. But Christian theology regards the civil magistrate precisely as an agent of divine wrath (Rom. 13:4). As the terrorists claimed a divine mandate for their attacks, so a civil government, according to the Apostle Paul, rightly claims a divine mandate to punish such wickedness.

(4) Was President Bush correct in playing host to Muslim leaders at an iftar, an evening breakfast during Ramadan that follows a day of fasting? Unlike Christian participation in the eucharist, participation in an iftar does not require commitment to Islam. Nevertheless, the President’s participation went beyond a mere demonstration of his intention not to fight against Islam as such. On that occasion, he was quoted as follows:

Ramadan is a time of fasting and prayer for the Muslim faithful. So tonight we are reminded of God’s greatness and His commandments to live in peace and to help neighbors in need. According to Muslim teachings, God first revealed His word, the holy Qur’an, to the prophet Muhammad during the month of Ramadan. That word has guided billions of believers across the centuries, and those believers built a culture of learning and literature and science.3

Here, Bush does not quite say that he agrees with the Muslim claim of revelation.  Nevertheless, his friendliness on this occasion, in my judgment, goes far beyond what was necessary to assure Muslims that our war is not against Islam as such. The Bible regards false worship—and from a Christian view, that is what Islam surely is—as idolatry and abomination (as Jer. 32:35). The same must be said of Bush’s comment that Islam is a “great religion.” Great in its historical influence it certainly is. But the commendatory connotation is not appropriate to Bush’s profession of evangelical Christianity.

In my judgment, then, the theological verdict on the President’s war rhetoric should be mixed. Some criticism has been unfair, not fully aware of biblical nuances and of the religious dimension of our war effort. But some statements of the President are, in connotation at least, inappropriate to one professing evangelical Christianity.

Such criticism should be made with an awareness of how hard it is to be president, especially in these times. Few of us could have maintained a more perfect balance in our words. But for all of us, I trust that these observations will encourage more precision and clarity of thought, for both the cause of political freedom and that of religious authenticity.

1 Christians of many political and theological persuasions have denied the religious neutrality of politics. See, as examples, David W. Hall, Savior or Servant? (Oak Ridge, TN: The Kuyper Institute, 1996), Rockne McCarthy et al., Society, State, and Schools (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), Rousas John Rushdoony, Christianity and the State (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1986), John W. Whitehead, The Separation Illusion (Milford, MI: Mott Media, 1977), John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972). For my own thoughts, see “Toward a Theology of the State,” Westminster Theological Journal 51:2 (Fall, 1989), 199-226, available also at www.thirdmill.org.

2 This broad understanding also helps us to see how futile it is, and how unfair, to disallow “religious” speech in public school classrooms while allowing the expression of every other sort of worldview.

3 See http://english.planetarabia.com/content/article.cfm/103333/109620/.


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