On March 11, 2003, nine days before the first major U.S. invasion of Iraq, a Catholic priest, a Methodist bishop and three Christian evangelical church leaders debated one central question on CNN's Larry King Live: What would Jesus do about the war with Iraq?
The priest and the Methodist leader opposed the conflict. The Christian evangelicals -- all conservative, white men -- urged support for the war, author and lecturer Melani McAlister told an audience at Franklin & Marshall College Nov. 1.
"And therein lies the problem," said McAlister, a specialist on the role that religion and culture has in shaping U.S. interests. She argued that the debate presented a "common, erroneous, journalistic frame" that perpetuates the myth that evangelical Christians almost exclusively are white males, and that they all supported the war. "The role of evangelicals in Iraq is far more complicated than that. There are political differences and global differences. It is very hard to define who they are."
During a lecture titled "What Would Jesus Do? Evangelicals, The Iraq War and the Torture Debate," McAlister, an associate professor of American studies, international affairs and media and public affairs at George Washington University, discussed how the role of evangelicals and perceptions of the war changed over time. The author of an upcoming book about U.S. Christian evangelicals, popular culture and international affairs addressed a crowd of several hundred students, faculty, staff and community members. Her talk was part of F&M's Common Hour series, held throughout the academic year midday on Thursdays, when no classes are in session. The series is intended to bring the entire F&M community together for culturally and academically enriching events and to promote dialogue on vital international, national, local and institutional issues.
A Diverse Group
Evangelicals comprise between 25 and 30 percent of the United States, and their ranks include African Americans, Latinos, liberals and conservatives, McAlister said. About 77 percent supported the Iraq War at its start, which is more than the national average, "but there was always a debate about what to think about (U.S. involvement in) Iraq." Near the end of the war, support among evangelicals waned to about 56 percent.
Just as other religious communities throughout the world, evangelical Christians wondered if Iraq was a just war -- asking if there were clear reasons for launching the conflict. They considered whether they should attempt to evangelize in Iraq. And they questioned whether torture tactics were morally right.
"Evangelicals, black and white, were compelled by a vision of peace to speak out against the war," McAlister said. "Evangelicals positioned themselves as part of the conversation on just war with Catholics and other Christians."
With the belief that they must bear witness to their faith, evangelicals debated whether it was prudent to perform missionary work in the Middle East.
"Some people saw the Iraq War as a chance to do just that and followed the throngs of soldiers into the formerly closed countries," McAlister said. "Others worried about how Christians would be associated with the war. They were afraid the war would create a lot of bad sentiments [toward] the United States, and Christians would be associated with the U.S. and get some of the negative impact."
The Torture Debate
Revelations in 2004 that the White House had supported torture tactics outside its borders, specifically at a Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba, and in 2006 that American soldiers participated in torture at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, were turning points for many evangelicals who supported the war, as they were for others, McAlister said.
"It was not just the images of naked, tortured people in pain at Abu Ghraib," McAlister said. "It was the fact that the pictures were taken by soldiers themselves. Evangelicals across the spectrum called it a question of sin."
Some Christian conservatives insisted the events were the perverse acts of a few, McAlister said. Others withdrew their support of the war. Support continued to dwindle with mounting financial costs and loss of life.
"Evangelicals' support for the war began to erode at the same time as everyone else's -- when it seemed there was not an end in sight," McAlister said. "Those who didn't live through the war started to oppose it. There was a simple cry. Something had gone wrong, and things were about to change."
Students who attended the talk said they were not aware of the diversity of viewpoints among evangelicals.
Anne Kolesnikoff '13, a government and French double major from Ithaca, N.Y., is a teaching assistant in Associate Professor of Government Jennifer Kibbe's "Understanding Terrorism" foundation class at F&M.
"We study Christian identity and movements," she said. "I thought it was interesting that there was a split in the Evangelical faith and that there are differences and diversity."
Cameron Koob '16, of San Diego, has attended nearly every Common Hour this year. He said he has enjoyed the lecture topics, which have included America's health care war, climate change and the 2012 presidential election.
"I like to go to things that interest me," Koob said. "And it is a privilege to be able to ask esteemed academics about their fields of study."