Preaching Politics

In The Right

You learn a lot from the Bible. There are, first, the moral teachings: Love your neighbor, obey the Ten Commandments and so on. There are answers to the Big Questions: God exists; we are immortal; the choices we make now determine the way we spend eternity.

And then there is the injunction to oppose President Bush’s Iraq policy. Just ask the Rev. Peter J. Gomes, Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, who recently gave a sermon—or, rather, a political lecture masquerading as a sermon—on this topic.

The sermon (which the curious may find at begins with an important question: What should a Christian do when the policies of his government conflict with the commandments of his God? That conflict is indeed possible, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a courageous minister who gave his life resisting Nazism, and to whom Gomes refers in his sermon, could tell you.

But Gomes isn’t content to offer an apolitical reflection on this question; he has an agenda. After quoting a verse from Jeremiah in which the Lord delights in “love, justice, and righteousness,” Gomes goes on to assume without argument that a war in Iraq would run contrary to these values—as though he has found, along with the case of Nazi Germany, an obvious tension between commitment to God and commitment to country. That conclusion does not follow in any straightforward way from the Scripture Gomes cites, and to lump Nazism and the Bush administration together as didactic examples would be risible if it weren’t so offensive.

My claim is not that Christianity never answers political questions. Some policies are so fundamentally opposed to the Christian moral code that no sincere Christian could support them. If I love my neighbor as myself, and if I define “neighbor” as broadly as Christ did, I cannot support the business of buying and selling slaves, of or shipping people to death camps, or of denying freedom to any of God’s children. American Protestantism should be proud of its role in the abolition movement. Bonhoeffer was right to invoke God against Hitler. Pope John Paul II is a hero for condemning the godless barbarity of Communism.


But few are the policies that meet this standard. When religious instruction passes from personal virtue and universal ideals to political stumping, warning bells should go off in our heads—even when the issue at hand is as weighty as war. The vast majority of committed Christians are not pacifists and do not find in the Bible an absolute prohibition on the use of force. The Bible teaches a presumption for charity and forgiveness, but when peaceful means have been exhausted, the Christian may find himself with no viable alternative to battle. The Bible itself tells of such times, as do the Christians who built Memorial Church and inscribed its south wall with the words, “In grateful memory of the Harvard men who died in the World War we have built this Church.” Note that word “grateful.” The Church is a monument not only to peace, as Gomes claims, but also to the worthiness of the cause for which the men it memorializes died.

The truth is that religious texts rarely offer political guidance, and it is dangerous to think otherwise. The scourge of Islamic terrorism results largely from a failure to recognize this limitation. I am not equating Gomes’ views with the thinking that has fueled terrorist atrocities in America, Israel, the Philippines, Bali and, most recently, Moscow. But this thinking begins by claiming God as a political backer, an error which Gomes commits with his easy assumption that a war in Iraq would run afoul of the things the Lord delights in: “Love, justice, and righteousness.”

There are many, many people—and many of these, Christians—who think that “love, justice, and righteousness” require us to stop a brutal dictator who threatens the peace of the world, and who quite conceivably could endow terrorists with tools of apocalyptic slaughter. And they are not limited, as Gomes suggests, to “evangelicals who have found little fault with anything that this administration has done or proposes to do, and who seldom met a war they didn’t like.” This is abusive language for so ecumenical a preacher.

One is struck throughout the sermon by Gomes’ uncharitable dismissals. He tells us, for example, that he “demand[s] a better excuse than revenge, or oil, for the prosecution of a war that is likely to do more harm than good”—as though people who think the war will do more good than harm are not only wrong, but opportunists and liars to boot. So much for the intelligent debate that Bush’s opponents so shrilly insist is being stifled.

It behooves me to preempt a few likely criticisms. First, this isn’t about free speech. Gomes has the right to say whatever he likes from his pulpit. I write a newspaper column: If anyone is committed to the right of shooting your mouth off, I am. But that right doesn’t shield you from criticism when the things you say are wrong.

Second, this isn’t about politics. Had Gomes delivered a rousing sermon about the dangers of nuclear proliferation and of Iraq’s ties to terrorism, citing the Bible to support his position, I would find it just as inappropriate.

Third, this isn’t about Gomes, toward whom I harbor no ill will. I have heard him deliver sermons that were thoughtful, witty, and inspiring. His office is one of the few vestiges of Harvard’s long and honorable friendship with Christianity that the forces of secularism have not yet annihilated. We are fortunate to have him here.

This is about the fact that ministerial musings on foreign policy are not the word of God, plain and simple. The reverend is a good man, and sometimes a wise one. But he has no business preaching his politics as Gospel.

Jason L. Steorts ’01-’03 is a philosophy concentrator in Dunster House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.