Bush can call war

Thursday, March 20, 2003 at 1:00am

In one last attempt to drum up support for war in Iraq, the White House is wrapping itself in the divine.

For months, President Bush and other administration leaders have tried to make their case. But most Americans still don't believe war with Iraq is the only answer. So now they're using the "M" word.

National security adviser Condoleezza Rice said it first. Press Secretary Ari Fleischer and others soon picked up the theme: The United States has a moral responsibility to take out Saddam.

Whoa! Who died and made them God? Deciding whether a particular war is moral or not is a heavy assignment, not usually left to politicians, or pundits like me.

I claim no moral authority. But having spent 10 years in seminary, I am familiar with the Christian theology on war and have consulted many who do, in fact, speak with authority on this subject. With few exceptions, they all disagree with the White House.

As with many issues, Christian thinking on war has evolved over the centuries. In the early days of Christianity, followers of Jesus were opposed to war. Surrounded by warring peoples, they considered themselves different. For those who walked in the shoes of the Prince of Peace, war was simply not acceptable.

In the fifth century A.D., the great St. Augustine changed that, setting forth a more realistic philosophy of war, which remains today the foundation of all Christian teaching on the subject. As outlined in a recent online article by Professor Mark Edward DeForrest of Gonzaga University, Augustine actually gave his blessing to war. And the power of prosecuting a war was part of the natural powers of a nation's leader, whose job it was to protect the peace.

But Augustine's teaching is no carte blanche for bloodshed. "For it makes a great difference by which causes and under which authorities men undertake the wars that must be waged," he wrote. War was acceptable only if waged in order to attain peace.

Eight centuries later, St. Thomas Aquinas expanded on Augustine, arguing for the first time the notion of a "just war." According to the rock of Roman Catholic theology, in order for a war to be considered just, it must meet three conditions: The war is prosecuted by a lawful authority; the war is undertaken for a just cause, which Aquinas defined as self-defense; and the war is undertaken "to achieve some good and avoid some evil."

Now, according to those terms, whether our proposed march to Baghdad qualifies as a just war is a question graduate students in theology spend long nights debating. But, aside from Southern Baptists, most spiritual leaders have no doubt: Because it's a pre-emptive strike, with no prior provocation by Iraq, President Bush's war does not meet the test.

"We do not support a decision to go to war without clear and convincing evidence of the need for us to defend ourselves against an imminent attack," said the Episcopal Church's House of Bishops. Echoed the United Methodist Church's bishops: "A pre-emptive war by the United States goes against the grain of our understanding of the gospel." And Pope John Paul II this week warned: "A war of aggression would be a crime against peace."

Those are tough words for President Bush. He talks about, and practices, his faith more than any modern president. He prays and reads the Scripture every day. But when asking, "What would Jesus do?" he may not get the answer he wants. According to most religious leaders, Jesus would exhaust every alternative to war. He'd never strike first. And he'd certainly give U.N. inspectors more time to disarm Saddam.

It's time for the White House to drop the "M" word. They can call this war whatever they want. Call it wise. Call it urgent. Call it necessary. Just don't call it moral.

Bill Press is co-host of MSNBC's Buchanan and Press.

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