The Great Christian Schism

While some Christians in America expressed serious disagreements over going to war in Iraq, other Christians waved the flag and cheered a war against heathen Muslims whom they hope to convert to Christianity.

One wonders how religious groups that claim to follow the same God and the Bible come to such different conclusions. This is not idle speculation. With such a large proportion of Americans professing to be Christians, the answers will have a bearing on the future of our nation. Will we support more military adventures or seek to resolve disputes peacefully?

On one hand, the US Council of Catholic Bishops, the National Council of Churches (NCC) and hundreds of religious leaders opposed the war and do not support preemptive strikes. On the other hand, the Southern Baptist Convention supported Bush’s invasion on the basis that Iraq was an aggressor that would cause “lasting, grave, and certain damage.”

Robert Edgar, General Secretary of the NCC attributes the split between Christians to those who believe in a warrior god and those who believe in “blessed is the peacemaker.” Fundamentalists read the Bible and find God leading a mighty army to divide the good from the bad, while Edgar finds direction in biblical passages that urge us to love our neighbors.

“Bush uses language like good and evil very freely and inappropriately,” Edgar says. “The world is more complicated than black and white, good and evil.”

Inappropriate statements-which Edgar calls “hate speech” and “death speech”-by Christian leaders such as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Franklin Graham inflame passions and lead to the deaths of innocent Christians who are killed by fundamentalist Muslims. He urges more efforts be given to conflict resolution, strengthening the UN and building international cooperation and less on military solutions.

Douglas Johnston, president of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy in Washington, D.C., said that religious leaders from the evangelical community play an influential role in White House policy by encouraging fundamentalist views of biblical prophecy about the end of the world, Israel and the Middle East. When the White House acts on such views, the world perceives the US being driven by a religious cult, which undermines the good the US could do in the world.

A Gallup Poll in October showed that practicing Christians are more likely than their nonpracticing counterparts to favor the invasion of Iraq. Nationally, 60 percent of those who reported that “religion is very important” to them, support the war, which increases to 64 percent among “born again” or evangelical Christians. In contrast, only 49 percent of those who say religion is “not very important” support invading Iraq.

“What a paradox,” says Gregg Carter, a sociologist at Bryant College in Smithfield, R.I. “Christ’s central messages on how we should come to terms with our enemies-through love and charity-are ignored, overlooked, and disregarded by a nation and a majority of its people who claim to be the heirs of these messages and of their author.”

Carter finds that the differences in the scriptures emphasized by fundamentalists versus mainline denominations are so great that they appear to be following two completely different books. Fundamentalists are more likely to take their cue from Romans in the New Testament, which say your leaders come from God. Do what they say. If not, you will invoke God’s wrath. Other mainline Protestants take guidance from passages in Luke, which advises Christians to love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you and pray for those who mistreat you.

Another reason for the schism comes in who gets included in “the Kingdom of God.” The mainline churches include everyone while the evangelicals exclude those who don’t agree with their doctrine and interpretation of the Bible. This position plays out politically with the far right fundamentalist-predominately Republicans-who draw their strength from the traditional “Bible Belt,” the South and Midwest.

Religious leaders and Christians are locked in disagreement. Evidently, the essential values of Christianity have not been resolved after almost two thousand years. Despite the rhetoric about America being “a Christian nation,” Christians remain undecided on whether to embrace their enemies or kill them.

DON MONKERUD lives in Aptos, California. He can be reached at: