Evangelicals Against Iran
A new era of hard-headed Christian realism and interfaith cooperation?
11:00 PM, Nov 19, 2009 • By MARK TOOLEY
Evangelicals organized by Southern Baptist leaders are pushing for more U.S. pressure against Iran's nuclear program while also offering solidarity to Iran's suppressed domestic opposition.
"Iran, the world's leading state sponsor of terror, is funding Hezbollah and Hamas in Lebanon and Gaza, has sought to destabilize democratic and Western-leaning regimes throughout the Middle East, is currently arresting and detaining political opponents, actively persecutes its Christian citizens, has shot protesters in cold blood in the streets, and its president has denied the Holocaust and vowed to wipe Israel off the face of the earth," pointedly opened the letter to Congress earlier this Fall from evangelicals and other Christians representing 28 million church goers. They declared that the "world's most dangerous regime" must not procure the "world's most dangerous weapons."
Even more recently, Southern Baptist leader Richard Land has joined with a New York evangelical seminary president and the New York Board of Rabbis to urge greater international sanctions against Iran to "produce effective diplomacy and encourage the human rights efforts of Iranians living under a militant Islamic regime." These evangelical-led initiatives aimed at Iran's mullahs contrast with Evangelical Left attempts to deflect U.S. pressure against Iran, led by groups like Jim Wallis's Sojourners.
A Wallis-organized "Words Not War" campaign on Iran started in 2006 and urged direct negotiations with Iran without calling for sanctions, emphasizing instead the need for U.S. strategic concessions. Unlike the Southern Baptist-led initiatives, which affirmed "newly-conceived, courageous human rights movements within Iran," the Wallis group was expressed no special concern about Iranians, except as potential victims of the U.S. The Wallis group even urged that the U.S. promise Iran that it will withdraw from neighboring Iraq and renounce any "claims on Iraqi oil and reconstruction contracts." It also wanted to link any demands on Iran to "broader denuclearization goals," including a nuclear free Middle East, obviously aiming at Israeli disarmament, while the U.S. gained moral credibility by "eliminating" its own nuclear arsenal.
These new Southern Baptist initiatives on Iran do not muddy waters by making demands on the U.S. or Israel, instead focusing exclusively on Iran's dangerous Islamist theocracy. The September letter to Congress from "Christian leaders" was signed by Land, who heads the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, along with other long-time conservative evangelical fixtures such as Pat Robertson, Gary Bauer, Ralph Reed, Chuck Colson, James Robison, John Hagee, Tom Minnery of Focus on the Family, and several Roman Catholic voices, such as Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. It warned that a nuclear-armed Iran would "initiate an arms race with other Middle Eastern and Arab nations" fearful of Iran's "extremist leaders." It also surmised that Iran, as the "world's leading state sponsor of international terror," would sell nukes to "demonstrated enemies to America and her allies."
After Iran's "intransigence in the face of soft diplomacy," the U.S. should demonstrate "serious consequences" if Iran does not abandon its nuclear program, the "Christian leaders" insisted. They urged economic sanctions against foreign companies involved in Iran's oil exports, in tandem with an international arms boycott against the mullahs.
A month later, the coalition with Land, New York Divinity School President Paul de Vries, and New York Board of Rabbis Vice President Joseph Potasnik, endorsed "targeted strict sanctions" against Iranian oil and boycotts of Iranian banks. Land explained: "We stand in solidarity with all people of good will both in the region and around the world in seeking to stop a nuclear Iran from grievously imperiling Israel, the Middle East and the world's peace." This October 30 Evangelical-Jewish resolution urged "all life-affirming, liberty-loving, peace-seeking peoples to speak up about these core values" in the face of the Iranian nuclear threat against "people of all ethnicities and religions, including all the peoples of the United States, Israel, Iran's neighbors" and other countries. "Physically, a nuclear Iran would endanger billions of people in the Middle East, Europe and Asia," they noted. "Economically, a nuclear Iran would threaten the entire earth."
Land, and nearly all the signers of the September "Christian leaders" letter to Congress, are strongly pro-Israel. After releasing the October 30 letter with the New York seminary president and New York rabbis, Land stressed: "We stand in solidarity with all people of good will both in the region and around the world in seeking to stop a nuclear Iran from grievously imperiling Israel, the Middle East and the world's peace."
Citing the Gospel command to be "salt" and "light," Land explained that his coalition aims to be "salt in preserving Israel and the entire region from bloody conflict and terrible loss of life" and "light" by supporting everyone "whose lives and liberties are in peril by the dangerous rogue regime which presently oppresses the Iranian people."
Land's joint resolution with the New York rabbis is more sophisticated than most ecumenical or interfaith political statements. It cites Iran's special ops forces in Iraq, the likelihood of fearful Arab Persian Gulf neighbors nuclearizing in response to Iranian nukes, the Iranian theocracy's belief that a cataclysmic war would apocalyptically precipitate the return of the messianic "12th imam" as a precursor to global Muslim domination, the disastrous impact of Iranian control over Persian Gulf oil, chronic Iranian "lies" about its nuclear program, and the Iranian president's simultaneous denial of the Holocaust while threatening to precipitate another.
The joint Jewish-Evangelical resolution also articulates that "strict sanctions" are preferable to military action, which should only be a "last resort." It concludes by asking: "What steps can best enable Iran's masses against this regime?"
As World War II ended and the Cold War began, mainline Protestant and ecumenical leaders, helped by serious thinkers like Reinhold Neibuhr and John Foster Dulles, crafted weighty church pronouncements about war and peace. In the 1960s, the mainline imploded into utopian radicalism, while Evangelicals still struggled for a thoughtful international political witness beyond patriotism and reflexive anti-Communism. In contrast to the rising Evangelical Left's renewed utopianism, these recent Southern Baptist organized stances on Iran portend a possible new era of hard-headed Christian realism and interfaith cooperation.
Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy and author of Taking Back The United Methodist Church.