Jessica Wilbanks is right to stress the importance of religion in efforts to create a
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
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
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.