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Clerical Opposition to War in Gulf Builds Quickly : Protest: Unlike Vietnam, mainline religious leaders have come out early and in unprecedented unanimity against possible use of U.S. military force.

December 22, 1990|JOHN DART | TIMES RELIGION WRITER

Thousands of Americans had died in Vietnam and years of warfare had passed by the late 1960s before most religious leaders became actively involved in the movement to stop the fighting.

Yet, within weeks after Iraq invaded Kuwait, ranking clerics ranging from Catholics to Lutherans to Episcopalians began opposing the possible use of military force by U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf.

With U.S. troops still amassing in Saudi Arabia and Iraq facing a U.N. deadline to pull out by Jan. 15, mainline church leaders have reached unprecedented unanimity and stepped up their anti-war lobbying.

Presiding Bishop Edmond L. Browning of the Episcopal Church met Thursday with President Bush, a lifelong Episcopalian, at the White House and urged against war. Then, on Friday, Browning and 18 Protestant and Eastern Orthodox church executives--just back from a trip to Baghdad and other Middle Eastern points--said in a collective statement at the United Nations that they are "utterly convinced" that war is not the solution.

They have not been persuaded by Bush Administration reasons for fighting, including protecting economic interests and punishing an aggressor. Many are anguishing over the billions being spent for a military buildup while domestic poverty programs go begging.

Harking back to the long, bloody lessons of Korea and Vietnam, a chorus of mainline church leaders say the time has come to settle international disputes through nonviolent means.

"There is no compelling reason for going to war, and all that war means in destruction, crippling and killing," said Catholic Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, who spent eight days in Baghdad this month accompanying relatives of hostages.

"For 40 years, ever since the Korean War, people were easily swayed (to back fighting) by the threat of communism," said Gumbleton, an auxiliary bishop in Detroit.

War of any kind "is abhorrent," said the Rev. Daniel Weiss, general secretary of the American Baptist Churches. The fact that the Bush Administration initially offered "economically grounded reasons" for fighting especially disturbed church leaders, he said.

"At this time of year particularly, we are reminded of the coming of the Prince of Peace who has called us to be peacemakers in his name, and we need to urge the governments of the world to find alternate ways to settle differences," Weiss said last week.

The United States "has not learned anything" from its wars in Korea and Vietnam, said United Methodist Bishop Melvin Talbert of San Francisco, a onetime Los Angeles pastor who took part in anti-war protests during the 1960s.

The contrast between today's anti-war spirit in mainline Christianity and the slowly evolving views about Vietnam have heartened religious veterans of the 1960s protests.

"It is remarkable that wide religious opposition has already taken place in the case of this projected war," said the Rev. John C. Bennett, former president of Union Theological Seminary in New York now in retirement in Claremont.

Bennett, who was writing magazine editorials against U.S. involvement in Vietnam by 1965, recalled that most religious leaders did not reach a consensus against that war until 1969. It was not until November, 1971, that the U.S. Catholic bishops declared it was morally imperative to bring "this tragic conflict" to an end.

"Bishops are historically, naturally inclined to be patriotic, and not to condemn their own government," said Jesuit Father George H. Dunne, a retired Loyola Marymount professor.

"But the bishops have done a lot more thinking about war since the Vietnam War ended in 1975," he said, citing the long study preceding the 1983 U.S. Bishops Pastoral Letter on War and Peace that was highly critical of the nuclear arms race.

Just weeks into the current crisis, top officials from mainline denominations began questioning the White House's impatience with an economic embargo, inconsistent objectives and what the president of the United Church of Christ called "the steady drumbeat of war messages."

But it took Bush's announcement on Nov. 8 that he would double U.S. troop strength to galvanize opposition by the two largest bodies in U.S. organized religion--the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, whose parishes serve 54 million Catholics, and the National Council of Churches, whose 32 denominations embrace 42 million members.

Both groups were holding their annual meetings the following week and both promptly placed the buildup on their agendas.

Not all religious groups, however, are raising objections to a possible U.S. military offensive.

American Jewish leaders and evangelical Christian clergy on the whole see Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as a dangerous, unpunished threat who needs to be declawed lest Israel and other Middle Eastern countries fall prey in the future.

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