Religion & Philosophy

Found: a portal to the conservative soul

THE DEPROLIFERATOR — Many Americans believe that, since the end of the Cold War, nuclear war is no longer a threat. Besides, isn’t President Obama tying up loose nuclear ends with his flurry of policy reviews and treaty signings? Others are die-hards for deterrence, understandable since (as I’ve written) it’s the most difficult argument in the world to refute.

The disarmament establishment, meanwhile, dedicates itself to influencing policy but disdains reaching out to the public in any meaningful way. That war is left to latter-day peaceniks, whose campaigns, as fruity as they are fruitless, only turn off the public because they do little to address the fears that drive Americans into outstretched nuclear arms.

Connecting with a public that’s either complacent or frightened requires hitherto untapped reserves of ingenuity. There must be a way, one finds oneself thinking, if we just apply ourselves. I hadn’t gotten around to resorting to prayers — as with many, a last-ditch strategy for me. But, as if in anticipation, they were answered when I came across an interview at the Center for American Progress website with a man who has found a portal to the public on nuclear disarmament.

Where did he find this rip in the space-time continuum? Among, of all people, conservatives. And of all conservatives, religious conservatives. It turns out that, lo and behold, contrary to liberal misconceptions, not all of them support “nuclear apocalypticism” — that nuclear weapons are simply God’s way of paving the way for Second Coming of Christ.

In fact, Baptist minister Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, a graduate of Yale Divinity School, poked out this portal himself. He argues that the elimination of nuclear weapons is actually consistent with conservative Christian theology. Three years ago he began a project named Two Futures (2FP). What, you wonder, are those futures? As its website makes clear, we have a choice: “A world without nuclear weapons or a world ruined by them.”

Wait — how does Rev. Wigg-Stevenson sell conservative Christians on a policy typically associated with the “liberal left”?

He concedes that it can be difficult. In the CAP interview, he explains how some to whom he presents the issue of disarmament “just can’t see the way in which our global context has changed. They’re still fighting the Cold War.” Even though he draws his argument from the Bible and orthodox Christian faith, “because I’m advocating a position that’s traditionally associated with the political left, it feels out of bounds” to them.

In an email, I asked Rev. Wigg-Stevenson if the prospect of working towards the same end as progressives, many of them secular, is anathema to Evangelicals. He replied that, out of deference to their sensibilities, he originally worked with Evangelicals alone.

For [2FP’s] first 20 months we had no public face — it was just me talking one-on-one with Evangelical leaders to get a broad base of support for the concept. I felt that it was very important to carve out a “safe space,” so to speak, where we could develop a confessional position on nuclear weapons that would have integrity and resonate with the Evangelical community. But we’ve now got three years of momentum behind this effort and I feel like we’re strong enough to work as co-belligerents alongside those with whom we have theological or secondary disagreements. At the same time, I’m very conscious to remind people that this doesn’t make us “progressive.”

Besides, he said in the CAP interview, that “sort of . . . strict correlation between faith and partisan politics” is fading. “And it’s misinformed to begin with. … There’s never been a more zealous nuclear abolitionist in the Oval Office than Ronald Reagan.”

Ah, Ronald Reagan — that anti-nuclear resource that, however bountiful, the Left is too proud to use. Still, even with the devout, “the moral argument doesn’t [always] run the show. The first question that everyone has is, ‘What makes us safer?’ So it’s important to lead, at least in most contexts, with the fact that nuclear weapons don’t make us safe any more — that the problems they cause are far worse than any they purport to solve.”

Darned if Rev. Wigg-Stevenson’s ideas aren’t also front and center among the conclusions of an organization called U.S. in the World (USITW) in a report it generated: Talking about Nuclear Weapons with the Persuadable Middle. It’s based on an analysis of various research projects undertaken to facilitate communication with what might be called political independents.

Among its recommendations [emphasis added]:

Peace and security advocates should. . . “re-frame” the issue [of nuclear weapons] to help people see that it is the existence of the weapons themselves — not who has them — that poses the primary threat to global and national security. The fact that nuclear weapons are a source of risk — not the fact that they are morally wrong — should be presented as the underlying reason why the issue of nuclear weapons matters.

At least as important to younger evangelicals, said Rev. Wigg-Stevenson, is “getting to these positions out of their own internal faith logic. … What I’ve tried to do in the Two Futures Project is bring an explicitly confessional theology right into the center of our nuclear disarmament argument.”

For those unfamiliar with confessional theology, he both defined it for us in his email and showed how it incorporates disarmament:

I don’t mean confessional in the sin-absolution sense, but rather in the older sense of the confessions of faith and doctrine: that is, what we “confess” to be true — a technical term in theology with historical roots in the origins of the faith, when Christians were likely to be martyred. So we begin with the “confession” that Jesus Christ is Lord. This distinguishes us from an inter- or multi-faith effort that is more concerned with bringing together people across religious differences in common cause. I felt that there was a lack in the anti-nuclear community of efforts where Christians could come as Christians and employ their deepest faith commitments to the issue. So rather than minimizing what makes us particular and peculiar — our faith in Jesus Christ as Lord — we put that front and center.

Rev. Wigg-Stevenson explains those commitments in a piece on the Washington Post website:

We view the Bible as wholly authoritative for any theological claims we make, and consequentially conduct our analysis primarily from a perspective of Just War thinking, a biblically-grounded theological framework that has guided Christian moral discernment regarding the use of force for centuries.

In connection with Just War theory, he addresses the Obama administration’s assurance in its Nuclear Posture Review that the United States pledges not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear powers that have signed and are in compliance with the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Why, the flabbergasted questioning goes, would we take options off the table? Well, we take options off the table all the time, because values matter. If we were attacked with chemical or biological weapons, would we slaughter civilians in an enemy’s capital city in response? … There’s nothing wrong with a strong military. …. But if we take seriously the whole witness of Scripture, we must also recognize that the unfettered pursuit of strength — fearing mortal enemies more than God’s judgment — in fact leads to an ungodly arrogance and idolatry. … we cannot simply take a secular utilitarian, value-less approach to security policy. [Emphasis added.]

Though Rev. Wigg-Stevenson and Two Futures don’t actually come out and say it, what’s implied is that the sanctity of the state comes in a distant second to that of the Kingdom of Heaven. Stay tuned for my next dialogue with him in which I ask: “If the United States were threatened with nuclear attack while it’s gradually disarming, should it refuse to respond in kind and thus risk dissolution of the state?”

Or as a commenter to the Washington Post piece, one Arancia12, said:

I do not believe in survival at any cost. … Death is not the worst thing that can happen to a Christian. Not living as a Christian is the worst thing that can happen to a Christian.

As for working together in the future with progressives, one point of convergence that Rev. Wigg-Stevenson sees is for all to support H. Res. 278, a bill currently in the House Subcommittee on Foreign Affairs sponsored by Rep. James McGovern of Massachusetts. The “Global Securities Priority Resolution” recognizes the “need to address the threat of international terrorism and protect the international security of the United States by reducing the number of and accessibility to nuclear weapons and preventing their proliferation, and directing a portion of the resulting savings towards child survival, hunger, and universal education.”

When it comes to least likely suspects for leading the charge to disarmament, the Two Futures Project has now officially surpassed Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, George Shultz, William Perry, and their “Four Horsemen” op-eds for the Wall Street Journal.

First posted at the Faster Times.

3 replies »

  1. …I’m advocating a position that’s traditionally associated with the political left, it feels out of bounds” to them.

    Ah, yes. The core of all American action – “feels.”

    Well, in that case, is it okay if that “Reagan as nuclear abolitionist” meme feels out of bounds to me?


    Great piece, Russ….

  2. But he was a nuclear abolitionist, and it was that stand that ran him afoul of the neocons…who he then fired; who then wrote stinging op-eds about his weakness; and who now invoke his name like a religious fetish. (Still a damned shame that he believed in Star Wars because he saw it in a movie once. Otherwise we might already be mostly done with nuclear weapons.)

    I still cannot figure out why a president who’s supposedly got nuclear disarmament high on his agenda isn’t mentioning St. Reagan every other sentence when he talks on the issue…unless it’s that he’s not as serious as he wants to look. I’m betting on that, given the fine print in his non-use policy…note how it has a special exemption for Iran, so long as we accept US accusations about Iranian behavior at face value.

    Heartening to hear of this Rev. Wigg-Stevenson. He’s got solid, theological arguments behind him. Whether he’ll have success is a big question, but we should remember how active and important churches were in the Vietnam era. A lot of priests protested the war, and probably had as much impact on the views of Middle America as hippie protests.

    • I guess my issue has to do with the irony of method. Let’s get rid of nukes by arms racing as hard as we can so that we break the Soviets – wasn’t that roughly the approach?