Religion and nuclear disarmament

By Lawrence S. Wittner, September 10, 2007

Jessica Wilbanks is right to stress the importance of religion in efforts to create a nuclear-weapon-free world.

During the 1950s and early 1960s, religious bodies were eloquent critics of the arms race and nuclear testing. As early as 1954, the World Council of Churches called for the elimination and prohibition of nuclear weapons.

Religious organizations were particularly active during the great upsurge of protest against nuclear weapons in the early 1980s. In the United States, the National Council of Churches endorsed the idea of a “nuclear freeze,” and its president declared, “Jesus Christ stands in direct opposition to everything nuclear weapons represent.” Major Protestant denominations–including the United Presbyterian Church, the United Methodist Church, the United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church, and the Lutheran Church–also endorsed the freeze and condemned nuclear war. In May 1983, the nation’s largest religious denomination, the Roman Catholic Church, weighed in with a highly publicized pastoral letter by the Catholic Bishops, The Challenge of Peace. It deplored the arms race, called for nuclear abolition, and asserted that “our ‘no’ to nuclear war must . . . be definitive and decisive.”

Of course, this condemnation of nuclear weapons and nuclear war was far from universal among religious enthusiasts. In the early 1980s, the emerging Christian Right threw itself into pro-nuclear ventures. Rev. Jerry Falwell, the nation’s most popular evangelical preacher and head of the Moral Majority, repeatedly assailed the nuclear disarmament campaign as a front for the Kremlin and exhorted “patriotic, God-fearing Americans” to speak out for the Reagan administration’s nuclear buildup.

Nevertheless, during the 1980s–as during preceding decades–the bulk of U.S. religious leadership came down on the side of nuclear disarmament. This did much to legitimize the efforts of peace and disarmament groups.

By contrast, there appears to be far less of a religious mobilization against the nuclear arms race today. Yes, Faithful Security and the Fellowship of Reconciliation work steadfastly to call attention to nuclear dangers and to promote nuclear disarmament, as do small, pacifist religious denominations like the Society of Friends. And an array of religious organizations have signed a critique of Complex 2030 (PDF), the Bush administration’s plan to upgrade U.S. nuclear weapons facilities. But for the most part, the major religious bodies have steered clear of the anti-nuclear campaign and have certainly not mobilized their congregations to support it.

Where was the uproar among U.S. mainstream religious denominations when the Bush administration abandoned the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty? Where was the uproar when our latest round of presidential candidates talked glibly of a nuclear attack upon Iran? Where is the demand to get the U.S. government back on track to nuclear arms control and disarmament?

The reasons for the apparent abandonment of nuclear disarmament by mainstream religious denominations remain murky. Like much of the public, they may have been caught up in the patriotic hysteria fostered by 9/11. Even more significantly, in the context of losing membership to fundamentalist groups, they may be wary of taking stands on “controversial” issues such as peace and nuclear disarmament. The Catholic Church may also feel chastened by pedophilia scandals and, thus, be reluctant to reiterate its advanced stand against nuclear war.

Nevertheless, if the leaders of these denominations are genuinely committed to fostering love–rather than mass annihilation–within the human community, they should resist the pull to expediency and speak out with prophetic voices against nuclear war and nuclear weapons. Furthermore, they might find that taking such action would bolster their standing–not only among members of their own congregations, but among the followers of right-wing fundamentalist groups and even among nonbelievers.

Topics: Nuclear Weapons


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