MORAL SUASION by religious leaders has been markedly absent when it comes to the Iraq war, at least among American Christians.
As a poll conducted on the eve of the war makes clear, a significant gap exists between the views of many Catholic and mainline Protestant leaders and those of their people in the pews.
While the Vatican, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Council of Churches all have roundly condemned the American military action in Iraq, two out of three parishioners supported President Bush's decision to go to war, according to the poll commissioned by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
Even local clergy have been reluctant to push their church leaders' message. According to the same poll, a mere 7 percent of Protestant pastors and 14 percent of Catholic priests had spoken out against the war, with the vast majority either remaining silent on the issue or addressing the conflict without taking a position on it. It must be equally disconcerting for church leaders that, according to a February Gallup Poll, support for the war was highest among those who are most regular in their church attendance.
Why have the armies of the Catholic and Protestant faithful, who together account for well over 50 percent of the U.S. population, deserted their generals in this campaign?
Whatever the reason, it is not because parishioners believe that their religious leaders "have stopped preaching and started meddling," as the saying goes. According to the Pew Forum poll, only 15 percent of respondents, whether for or against the war, believed that religious leaders had been speaking out too much on this issue. In fact, most were of the opinion that these leaders had either struck the right balance or actually said too little about the war.
Questions of war and peace are of great moral import, and Catholic and Protestant citizens, like the majority of Americans, obviously seem comfortable drawing on religious sources to inform the public discussion on such weighty matters.
Neither can the gap be attributed to fundamental differences over basic principles regarding the morality of war. As the Pew Forum poll shows, four of five Americans believe that war is sometimes morally justified. That, in fact, is the basic orientation of the "just war doctrine" that has defined mainstream Catholic and Protestant thinking for centuries.
How then to explain this dramatic disconnect on the Iraq war between church members and their spiritual shepherds?
Some suggest that the split is because of the willingness of religious leaders to play an unpopular prophetic role even as their people are carried along by popular sentiment. Others contend that differences over the war simply underscore a long-standing ideological divide, especially within mainline Protestant denominations, between politically liberal church leaders and their relatively more conservative parishioners.
Both explanations have merit. There is a third possibility, however. Perhaps the folks in the pews welcome moral guidelines from their church leaders on what constitutes a "just war," but do not necessarily believe that they have the expertise to apply those principles to specific and very complex situations, such as the case of Iraq.
Take the "just war" principle of last resort, which stipulates that all reasonable means of peacefully resolving a conflict must be tried before military force is permitted. The religious leadership has insisted that the possibilities for diplomacy with respect to Iraq had not been exhausted.
But most American Christians came to believe that the Iraqi government simply was using the United Nations to buy more time, and that it was now appropriate to pursue the military option. Same principle, very different conclusions.
As the Pew Forum poll shows, Catholics and mainline Protestants along with the broader public turned to the media, political commentators and family and friends rather than to religious leaders for information and guidance on the Iraq crisis. And they concluded with the president and the majority of their elected representatives that this war indeed was justified.
If this reading is correct, then at least the Catholics among them might take comfort in the fact that their own catechism states that the application of "just war" principles to specific situations "belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good."
That is to say, to politicians rather than to prophets, to presidents rather than to pastors. It's a balance religious leaders across all traditions must strive for as they exercise their indispensable public role as moral teachers.
Luis Lugo is the director of the religion program at the Pew Charitable Trusts in Philadelphia.