McAlister discusses Evangelical Christians, Iraq War

BY SLOANE MARKLEY ’14
Managing Editor

Melani McAlister, associate professor of American studies, international affairs, and media & public affairs at George Washington University, discussed some of the findings in her upcoming book, Our God in the World: The Global Visions of American Evangelicals, at this week’s Common Hour entitled “What would Jesus do? Evangelicals, the Iraq War, and the Torture Debate.” McAlister wanted to show Evangelicals are more diverse than they are popularly thought to be.

McAlister began her discussion with a flashback to a debate about the Iraq War hosted by Larry King on March 11, 2003 between Christian pastors, priests, bishops, and authors. The debate revolved around the question “What would Jesus do in Iraq?”

The group of Christians was divided by denomination. The first few attendees to speak, including a Bishop from a Methodist Church, spoke strongly against the war. On the other hand, conservative, white Evangelicals all urged support for the war, insisting that Jesus spoke of the possibility of a just war.

“Throughout [the debate] the white evangelicals provided support for the war while the others provided a liberal opposition,” McAlister said. “It presented a vision of American Evangelicals that once again produced an erroneous frame.”

According to McAlister, the group at this debate did not accurately depict American Evangelicals because there were no women or African American, Arab American, liberal, or moderate Evangelicals, furthering the conception of American Evangelicals as extremely conservative, white men. Yet, American Evangelicals are much more diverse than this image, complicating the discussion of Evangelicals’ role in and opinion of the Iraq War.

McAlister explained that while 68 percent of the general population supported the war at first, 77 percent of Evangelicals supported it.

As the war raged on, the Evangelical center became more visible and powerful, and the changing context of Evangelical life around the world became more visible as well. McAlister focused her talk around three main points: whether the Iraq War is a just war, the status of missionary work in Iraq and other countries, and the debate over torture.

The idea of a just war harkens back to early church leaders who began to challenge the pacifist ideology of the church, arguing a war could be just depending on why it was being carried out and how it was carried out. They urged that if particular circumstances were met, such as there being a good reason, all other alternative methods at solving the conflict were tried, it was led by a legitimate authority, and the causalities of civilians were limited, the war could be viewed as just in the eyes of God.

In the context of the Iraq War and American Evangelicals, both sides used the just war argument. While there were more Evangelicals lined up in support of the war, McAlister explained a small minority was against it and pushed hard with arguments against the war. Yet, according to McAlister, the answer that came from the debate was not what was important, it was the effect of engaging in debate.

“Just war didn’t decide the question,” McAlister said. “The important thing was, by engaging in a just war debate, Evangelicals positioned themselves as part of a larger conversation, especially with other Christians.”

The second tenant of McAlister’s discussion focused on the status of missionaries and fellow believers around the world, as well as what it meant to evangelize and how to go about it. The question of evangelizing caused a rift between American Evangelicals.

According to McAlister, many American Evangelicals supported evangelizing Muslims in Iraq and some churches went in, following the soldiers, and attempted to do just that. Yet, another camp of Evangelicals worried about the association of Evangelicals with the U.S. in the long run, especially if the war went poorly, and how that might affect their relationship with the Middle East.

McAlister explained there were two things to consider when discussing this part of the Evangelicals’ role in the Iraq war. The first is the issue of globalization.

“The number of Christians in other parts of the world has grown while the number of Christians in Europe has shrunk dramatically,” McAlister said. “So what begins to happen, in small ways at first, is American Christians, especially Evangelicals, when they start talking about the body of Christ in the community it doesn’t make sense to just talk about this in nationalistic terms. The idea of them as part of third-world religion is something new.”

The second issue is the attitude of Evangelicals toward Islam.

“The sense of Islam as a threat or reality of a world where there would be competition becomes very important with the end of The Cold War,” McAlister said. “Of course the attacks on 9/11 only intensify these fears as people begin to think of the cause of these attacks: were the attacks due to Islam, due to a perverse interpretation of Islam, or were they really due to U.S. foreign policy?”

McAlister described the spectrum of views towards Islam in the Evangelical community. At one end there is purist hatred and the other there is determined dialogue.

In line with her second discussion was the realization by Evangelicals of the perilous situation of Evangelical believers in the Middle East, where they felt in danger and were in conflict with Muslims on the ground. McAlister asserted these conflicts worsened after the United States attacked Afghanistan and Iraq.

“Violence has many complex reasons,” McAlister said. “None of it is a matter of one religion going against another; people are in conflict over ethnicity, resources, and the control of government.”

McAlister stressed the importance of Evangelicals perspective on Islam that was highlighted during this time.

“Think about what they think about Islam, [it is] not just a domestic question, but really an international question because they are seeing [themselves] as part of this global community,” McAlister said.

McAlister then transitioned into her third topic: the debate about the use of torture. She started her discussion by stating the events at Abu Ghraib Prison and Guantanamo Bay Prison ignited dramatic changes in the Evangelical community.

These events occurred in 2004 and at this time Evangelicals still supported the war and Bush. For Evangelicals, the revelations of what occurred at Abu Ghraib raised moral and theological questions. They believed it was a question of sin and the community differed widely in their response to this question. Some argued sin could manifest itself in individuals, which is unrepresentative of the entire population. Others argued domestic culture was the root of the problem, specifically the proliferation of pornography, arguing if pornography was not allowed to flourish in America then the soldiers would not have even been able to imagine the things they did.

An African American Evangelical pastor, who argued he was not surprised by the images he saw because he had seen similar things before, offered a racial perspective of the situation. McAlister explained the political history of the oppression of African Americans was therefore part of the memory of the church.

Next were the revelation of Guantanamo Bay Prison and the release of White House memos arguing that practices viewed as torture should be allowed in the war against terror. Many Evangelicals, as well as conservatives in general, were not willing to be soft on terrorism or to criticize Bush. Yet, according to McAlister, many liberal Evangelicals were getting upset at this point.

“[Here they] begin a two-year process of Evangelical declaration against torture,” McAlister said. “Basing [their] argument against torture on human rights and sanctity of life — self-consciously [connecting to] the pro-life movement. One of the things we see as a reality of evangelical politics today is that a position generally regarded as socially conservative — pro-life — becomes the rhetoric of conservative Evangelicals.”

McAlister emphasized while the torture debate was a success for liberal and moderate Evangelical leaders, it did not represent the majority view. Many Evangelicals supported the use of torture at a higher rate than the general population.

Yet, Evangelical support for the war began to erode around 2006, which was about the same time the general population’s support for the war decreased. Some Evangelical leaders even urged Evangelicals to repent for their stances throughout the war.

According to McAlister, when Obama made the last arrangements to pull out of Iraq, Evangelicals, as well as the Christian media, were concerned with the status of churches in Iraq.

“The war unleashed sectarian conflict in Iraq and Christians were indeed in danger,” McAlister said.

McAlister highlighted the extreme costs of the war: many lives were lost, many soldiers were wounded, many Iraqis were displaced from their homes, and billions of dollars were spent. Also, McAlister described how the war affected American Evangelicals.

“Evangelicals were also changed by the war, the revelations of torture, and the impact of supporting a war whose outcomes they could not influence or control,” McAlister said. “[There was a] simple cry, especially among young Evangelicals, of a sense that something had gone wrong and some things were about to change.”

Questions? Email Sloane at smarkley@fandm.edu.

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