November 21, 2002
Religious Voices in Foreign Policy
-- Edward LeRoy Long, Jr.
Martin Marty's report of PBS's "America in the World" and the
conversations at the Wye Plantation
During and right after the Second World War, leading theologian Reinhold Niebuhr addressed the role of the United States in world affairs in such works as Christianity and Crisis. Although he dealt with these issues broadly, his thinking on U.S. foreign policy may have been the major -- or certainly a major -- aspect of his contribution. Several church bodies produced documents with titles such as "A Just and Durable Peace." There was strong religious support for the development of international cooperation and for organizations such as the United Nations. Many churches took the lead in suggesting the importance of establishing diplomatic relationships with Communist China. The National Council of Churches had a department devoted to concerns of international order, as did many individual denominations. Several religious groups established offices near the United Nations to maintain witness and contact with the various delegations forming that body. A number of seminaries offered courses directly or significantly relevant to these concerns. The topic, though not without controversy, was "front burner."
During the Vietnam War, religious groups were highly visible in confronting the issues raised by that conflict. Considerable attention was devoted to developing more astute and articulate awareness of the morality of conflict and the principles -- primarily appearing as a refurbishment of just war theory -- by which to judge whether or not that conflict was legitimate. Religiously grounded opposition to that conflict was hard to ignore or discount.
What is the current situation? The issues have changed, of course. Instead of dealing with aggression by armies under the direct control of national sovereignties, we must now deal with terrorism that may or may not be sponsored by sovereign states and which is not likely to cease on the basis of any duly signed armistice. Instead of confronting a world in which discrete logistical (economic and geographical) parameters separate parts of the world from each other, we are engaged in technologically-enhanced interchanges that are less and less responsive to discrete political guidance. We no longer debate whether or not the United States should become involved in world affairs, but rather whether or not that involvement has become so massive, so widespread, and even so unilateral as to be more dangerous than helpful. Are churches and religious groups in general addressing these issues with the vigor or thoroughness with which they addressed corresponding issues in earlier times? If they are, are those efforts as visible as prior efforts? Unless they are or can become so, the role which the Wye Plantation conference seems to have envisioned for religious bodies will not be realized.
Edward LeRoy Long, Jr. is the James W. Pearsall Professor Emeritus of Christian Ethics and Theology of Culture at Drew University.