Race, Religion and War
Though "white" and "black" Americans can not be discussed in monolithic terms, traditionally the respective groups have often differed tremendously in their support of war. Since World War II, there has not been a large consensus between African-Americans and Caucasian Americans on the legitimacy of large-scale military operations. Many African-Americans were among the first citizens to oppose the war in Vietnam, while most whites maintained their support. We have found ourselves in a similar situation today with diverging views on the war in Iraq along racial lines.
Charles Marsh, in his op-ed, "Wayward Christian Soldiers" brings the significance of race and religion into focus on the question of war. Marsh notes that white evangelical Christian (non-Catholic or Protestant) leaders such as Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell wrote what he describes as "war sermons" leading up to the Iraq War. According to the data Marsh has collected, 87 percent of white evangelical Christians supported the presidents decision to go to war. Despite all of the dubious claims about Iraq's WMD programs and connections to al-Qaida, that were made to justify the war and have proven to be false, 67 % of white evangelicals still support the war.
To be fair, if you were to ask the average person of any color why they are behind the war effort, they would say that the world is safer now that Saddam Hussein's regime has been toppled and democracy has come to Iraq and "it is better to fight them over there, than over here." Both those who stand by the war efforts and oppose them, are in agreement that we all have to support the troops, though some do not believe it is possible to be against the war without opposing the soldiers as well. For Christians who support war, theological gymnastics are always necessary to ignore Jesus' teachings on peace and loving thy enemy.
According to a 2005 CBS News Poll, 8 out of 10 African-Americans do not support the war in Iraq. The vast majority of African-Americans identify with the Christian religion and could be classified as evangelical even if they do not use that term. So, why is there such a schism between blacks and whites in general, and black and white Christians in particular, when it comes to war?
African-Americans can be some of the biggest proponents of federal legislations and programs on one hand (i.e. public education and healthcare), and some of the strongest critics of government on the other. The same government that abolished slavery and issued the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, was the body that allowed thousands of blacks to be lynched and allowed the Jim Crow system to persist far too long. While many blacks supported and fought in World War II, recognizing perhaps that Nazism abroad was an even greater threat to their security than white supremacy at home, they were disillusioned to find that their sacrifices did not yield greater equality and opportunity once the war was over.
In the tragic, moral miscalculation that was the Vietnam War, African-Americans again lost their lives on foreign soil, while they continued to be treated as second class citizens in their own country (despite the accomplishments of the Civil Rights movement). It has also not gone unnoticed that most of America's wars have been against people of color and in the case of World War II, the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, not Italy or Germany. As a people who have directly benefited from the power of peace and non-violence, as practiced by Civil Rights activists who were primarily black and Christian, it could be that we are more hopeful about alternative methods for resolving political conflicts.
White Americans have not experienced history as African-Americans have, and consequently tend to view both history and war in a much different way. For most white Americans (though certainly not all), the United States is without question the greatest country of all time and for many white Christians, it is the manifestation of God's kingdom on earth. In order to have this this interpretation of America, the hypocrisy and injustices of the country have to be minimalized or completely overlooked. Therefore, a nation which is so righteous and morally superior to the rest of the world must be justified whenever it decides to wage war. This is a troubling mindset for Christians, because we are supposed to be a people who believe that all fall short of the glory of God, and none are righteous when held in comparison. Jesus said it was impossible to serve God and money. The same could be said for God and country if you try to love them equally.
American mythology and historical amnesia conspire to cloud the judgment of far too many Christians in this country. The virtue of an African-American perspective, if there is such a thing, is in the ability of our community to embrace our "twoness," as Americans and African-Americans. The moral significance of Christians also depends on our ability to negotiate our dual identities as Americans and servants of Jesus Christ. DuBois said the existence of African-Americans is one of "two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals..." That should be even more true for those of us who have dual citizenship in the American empire and God's Kingdom. If our allegiance is first and foremost to our Lord and Savior, than we should usually find ourselves reluctant supporters of war at the very least and active opponents of it, more often than not.