Mainliners’ wrongheaded push for American disarmament

February 13th, 2018

WASHINGTON (RNS) — In 1985, as a 20-year-old college student, I attended public hearings by the United Methodist Church’s bishops as they drafted their pastoral letter on nuclear weapons.

I was interested in political pronouncements from my own denomination. And, as an intern for a group supportive of President Reagan’s “Star Wars” missile defense proposal, I was focused on the great public debate during those years about nuclear weapons.

“In Defense of Creation,” the letter issued one year later from the United Methodist bishops, rejected nuclear deterrence and any plans for defense against nuclear missiles. Instead it advocated for almost exclusive reliance on arms control and effectively called for unilateral disarmament by the U.S. Its tone, like much of the 1980s global peace movement, was apocalyptic. Pacifist theologian Stanley Hauerwas sardonically noted the bishops were more confident about denouncing Reagan’s missile shield than affirming God’s sovereignty over humanity.

Methodist and other mainline Protestant groups in those days were outspokenly both anti-nuclear and anti-military, loudly endorsing the nuclear freeze that the Soviet Union supported while going further to demonize all American possession of nuclear weapons. Exasperation over this naïveté from my own church and others about the continued relevance of military force, nuclear and otherwise, in preventing tyranny and war generated my own lifelong work to reform Methodist and Protestant political witness.

Fortunately, the 1980s-era mainline Protestant and ecumenical counsel for nuclear and other disarmament by the West was rejected by the U.S. and other Western governments. Intermediate-range nuclear missiles were deployed in NATO countries to counter the Soviet nuclear buildup over previous years. This deployment, along with Reagan’s missile shield plan and the wider U.S. nuclear and conventional military buildup, were key in persuading a previously resurgent Soviet Union that it could not win an arms race with America. Reagan and the Soviets subsequently negotiated the first-ever reductions in nuclear weapons, which preceded the fall of the Soviet empire itself. The U.S. buildup that church groups decried as a tripwire to calamity helped precipitate instead a peaceful end to the Cold War.

Mainline Protestant church groups, now much smaller than they were 30 years ago, continue to push American disarmament as key to world peace. They and other progressive religious voices also imagine an elimination of nuclear weapons through primarily moral example and persuasion. Today, as during the Cold War, their assumptions and proposals are utopian and dangerous.

For decades since the Cold War the U.S. has reduced its nuclear weapons and postponed modernization of remaining forces, even as Vladimir Putin’s Russia has increased its own force and its strategic reliance on them. Meanwhile, dangerous regimes like North Korea strive to achieve their own deliverable nuclear capacity.

In response, the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) aims over the next 30 years to modernize U.S. forces and increase their flexibility to deter evolving threats. It abides by current treaty commitments and does not increase overall reliance on nuclear weapons but seeks to reduce potential misperceptions by adversaries that they could gain strategic advantages through their own nuclear reach.

Critics of U.S. nuclear weapons often complain of their cost. But nukes are typically cheaper than conventional military forces. The NPR anticipates that spending on nuclear weapons even during modernization will not exceed 7 percent of the total defense budget.

Church and other religious opponents of U.S. nuclear weapons naturally oppose NPR, which they portray as a dramatic expansion. But it largely maintains the status quo, if anything increasing security and safety through long-overdue modernization of aging systems.

NPR perhaps most troubles these critics because it counters their dream of a world free of nuclear weapons. But no responsible government can base the security of its people on dreams. Nuclear weapons are a reality unlikely to leave this world. Experience teaches that American disarmament does not motivate adversarial regimes to disarm. More typically the opposite is the case as ambitious adversaries, when no longer deterred by unapproachable strength, are tempted to fill the void created by perceptions of vulnerability. Such misunderstandings can lead to war and catastrophe.

Christians, in examining war and peace, must not be wishfully ingenuous but instead must acknowledge fallen humanity as it is. Tyrants and aggressors, who are always with us, perhaps unto the end of the age, are perpetually searching for advantage. They often can be deterred by strength. They rarely if ever are persuaded into good behavior by the weakness of their adversaries and potential victims. This insight is as old as the Bible and is confirmable by daily observation in every age.

Over 30 years ago I was chagrined by my denomination’s retreat from the wisdom that prudent Christian realism should provide, sadly making its political witness irrelevant. Today I hope American Christianity across traditions will search for a stronger foundation on which to base its witness about war, peace and power. This foundation will trust God but not deify humanity.

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