Thursday, March 20, 2003

Churches, members often split on war

By Richard N. Ostling, The Associated Press
And Karen Vance, Enquirer contributor

The nation's ranking Christian clergy have formed their strongest anti-war alliance in at least a generation, but the people in the pews don't necessarily agree with their leaders.

There is opposition to the war among leaders of the Roman Catholic hierarchy; almost all the leaders of white, mainline Protestant denominations; and the heads of black Protestant groups.

But polls indicate a majority of the faithful support President Bush.

The Gallup Poll said in early March that 63 percent of those who said they attend church almost weekly favored a U.S. military invasion to end Saddam Hussein's rule, compared with 59 percent of the general public. The margin of error was 3 percentage points. A Pew Research Center poll question last month produced similar results.

Jessie Steelman , a Catholic from Anderson Township, said he's among those who support Bush's decision regardless of the Catholic bishops' position.

"I don't know that we should be involved over there; but who's going to do it if we don't? I support it because I support the president," said Steelman, the son of a World War II veteran, an Air Force veteran himself and the father of a new Air Force enlistee.

"Sometimes you have to do that, and I didn't even vote for Bush. He's the guy, whether you're Republican or Democrat. War isn't right, but somebody's got to do it."

Sister Alice Gerdeman, coordinator of the Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center , hears sentiments like Steelman's all over the Tristate.

"Many people who are either veterans or parents of loved ones in the military have personal experiences that shape their opinion and have them torn on the issue," she said. "I don't know many people who don't have questions about the war, but often they feel like they need to support a loved one in the military or need to believe what the government is telling us."

For Howard Gregory of Loveland, his support of the war is a matter of keeping his Episcopal faith separate from politics.

"There are a lot of things I disagree with the church leaders on. They're usually wrong," he said. "Just as I turn on the Oscars for entertainment not to hear the political views of celebrities, I don't think sermons should have as much of a direct opinion on world events."

But Mother Paula Jackson , pastor of the Church of Our Saviour Episcopal Church in Mount Auburn , said congregants' opinions are a sign of the state of religion in the United States.

"I think it speaks a great deal about the dilution of faith and the community of faith and the authority of faith," she said. "We've formed a civil religion where our country is always right and God is on our side no matter what our polices are."

But she doesn't see that all options to avoid war have been exhausted, so thinks the war is unjust and requires a person of faith to be opposed.

"To walk as a member of a community of faith that is not of this world but of another, that is going to cost something. And that is that sometimes we march against the grain and oppose the popular," she said. "That doesn't mean we're traitors or unpatriotic. We love our country, but we need to be cautious about following everything our country says is right."

In the past, says historian Martin E. Marty, clergy successfully prodded parishioners' opinions on major social issues such as alcohol prohibition and civil rights. But when it comes to war, lay Christians have gone along with the prevailing public sentiment, regardless of what they hear in church.

"The mainstream Protestant laity has been roughly where the public is as long as I've known them," said Marty, 75, a former University of Chicago professor regarded as the dean of American church historians.

"Barring some special factor, the laity is indistinguishable from the larger culture."

Judging from past conflicts, however, the current war debate won't be a make-or-break issue that will drive hawkish Christians from their denomination.

Most simply accept they have a difference of opinion with their spiritual leaders.

The clergy have not been so visibly opposed to the outbreak of hostilities since the pre-Pearl Harbor days of 1941, he said.

"Religious leaders are called to be leaders," said the Rev. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, the anti-war chief executive of the Reformed Church in America. "If they know how to lead well, people will be influenced - not all, but certainly some."

But locally, some of Bush's support comes from both the pulpit and the pews.

Rev. Donald H. Jordan Sr. , pastor of Allen Temple AME Church in Bond Hill , has asked his congregation to pray and remain strong in the face of war.

"I don't like the aggressive part of it, but on the other hand, I think we need to be open-minded to the president and the Congress' position. They have more intelligence information and awareness of the situation than we do," Jordan said. "Once the die is cast, I think we have to support those who would be put in harm's way."

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