U.S. Evangelicals join the nuclear-weapon-free world movement

By Rev. Tyler Wigg-Stevenson | May 6, 2009

Though many might imagine faith and science as incompatible, religion and atomic science, at least, are natural bedfellows. Both lead their truest devotees into a troubled insomnia, staring wide-eyed at dark ceilings as undeniably existential matters banish any thought of sleep. The first nuclear test was itself an oddly syncretistic undertaking–bearing the moniker of the Christian Godhead, Trinity; recounted by J. Robert Oppenheimer with his infamous appropriation of the Hindu scriptures; and, in the explosion, the apotheosis of materialism itself, rending the very building blocks of the universe. And, as the nuclear age took shape, humanity’s faith traditions proved instrumental as centers of resistance to what many of us see as categorically immoral devices.

In the storied and steady history of faith-based opposition to nuclear weapons, however, mainstream U.S. Evangelicals have been notably absent. Such has been our (yes, I’m one) absence that Michael Sean Winters, blogging on the website of the Catholic magazine America, wrote last week of the new Two Futures Project, “Nothing in recent memory is stranger than the emerging alliance between a group of activist evangelicals and former Cold War statesmen in support of an effort to eliminate nuclear weapons.”

As the founder and director of said alliance, I’m delighted to discover that we’re so superlative.

Last week we launched the Two Futures Project, a Christian movement led by a new generation of U.S. Evangelicals–with the blessing of our older forebears–for the complete, multilateral abolition of nuclear weapons. We have no illusions that the process will be quick or easy, and thus, are preparing for the work of a generation–to ensure nonpartisan continuity of purpose in U.S. political leadership for a nuclear-weapon-free world. Our goal is rooted in “the power of the ought,” as Max Kampelman and George Shultz call it, securing unshakable support for a post-atomic age, with the intention that its attainment would become the north star, or organizing principle, for U.S. nuclear policy.

Winters, a devout Catholic, isn’t the only person surprised by the Two Futures Project launch and the breadth of Evangelical support for our initiative–and with good reason. Though Evangelical statesmen such as John Stott, Billy Graham, and Jim Wallis–not to mention the steadfast witness of our Evangelical Anabaptist brethren–have raised voices in opposition to nuclear weapons, Evangelicalism has been tacitly or actively supportive of at least nuclear deterrence. So why the present shift?

The answer is primarily rooted in the obsolescence of factors such as a zealous anticommunism and a cultural distaste for the progressive advocates of disarmament. Such considerations, though of considerable importance to Christians in the 1960s and 1970s, have little bearing on a generation presently coming of age. These cultural attitudes may have persisted into the present day, but they have no potency or resilience. In other words, Evangelicals default to a Cold War position supporting nuclear weapons–just like most Americans–primarily because nobody has suggested we do otherwise.

But when Evangelicals today actually consider the effects of even a single nuclear weapon, the old logics fall away. Instead, we see a catastrophic event on a number of issues near and dear to the Christian heart–the destruction of innocents; massive degradation to the environment; and the little-discussed financial fallout that would probably be the most devastating worldwide consequence of a Bomb, bringing untold suffering especially to populations that already exist on the margins of the global economy.

This generational shift in U.S. Christianity has a providential synchronicity with the sea change in prevailing political attitudes about the role and utility of nuclear weapons. The shift in nuclear paradigms from the Cold War to the post-9/11 era will of course be well-known to Bulletin readers. The new view, articulated in varied ways by the Shultz foursome and the Global Zero coalition–and, most recently/significantly by presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev–recognizes that traditional deterrence is obsolete in the age of asymmetric warfare, that nonproliferation is no longer credible unless yoked with a serious commitment to disarmament, and that the alternative to a nonproliferation-disarmament agenda is eventual proliferation leading someday to the use of a nuclear weapon, whether by accident or design.

But discussion of this new realization has been largely confined to the nuclear technocracy–scientists, diplomats, politicians, and military leaders–without a broader public consideration, including the faith community. As a result, the profound moral implications of this shifted paradigm haven’t yet received their proper due.

Consider, for example, the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ 1983 pastoral letter–the most in-depth theological examination of nuclear weapons in the Cold War. It resulted in widespread public consideration of nuclear weapons and their implications. Yet the letter pulled up short of a categorical denunciation, citing a provisional acceptance of nuclear deterrence as an interim step to disarmament. Put simply, the bishops recognized that it is better for a nuclear weapons not to be used than the opposite, and so deterrence, though its premises are ethically dubious, is from a certain perspective at least morally plausible–that is, one could make a good-faith argument in its favor during the Cold War.

But what about now, when the bilateral status quo of the Cold War no longer offers deterrence its peculiarly terrifying stability? What about an age in which a besieged Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty means that all scenarios except global zero eventually lead to nuclear use? What about an age in which the threat of nuclear terrorism reveals deterrence theory as a Maginot Line–decent at preventing a frontal attack, but utterly useless against a more creative adversary?

In other words, the largely unrealized particularity of our present circumstances and any imaginable future mean that nuclear weapons are unarguably morally bankrupt, with a corollary mandate that demands abolition.

As U.N. disarmament chief Sergio Duarte points out, disarmament represents the fusion of idealism and realism: It’s the right thing to do, and it works. There’s an alignment between what we must do for our security, what we can do technologically, and what we ought to do morally. And it is my prayer–and ongoing labor–that U.S. churches will be the place where this threefold alignment is discovered and acted upon, creating an irresistible movement for an inevitably nuclear-weapon-free world.

Together, we make the world safer.

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