October 31, 2004

Theologians slam Bush's use of God to justify war in Iraq

A majority of Divinity School faculty members at the University signed a letter of protest on October 20 condemning President Bush's use of religious rhetoric to justify the war in Iraq.

About two-thirds of active Divinity School faculty members signed the letter, in addition to a majority of associate members and emeritus faculty. The letter attacks Bush's implication that the war in Iraq is part of God's will, calling it "an offense to language and reason" that is "little short of sacrilege."

Anthony C. Yu, the Carl Darling Buck professor on religion and literature, originally conceived of the idea of a letter of protest and suggested it to Bruce Lincoln, the Caroline E. Haskell professor of history of religions. Lincoln then drafted a letter, which he and Yu revised and eventually submitted to the Divinity School faculty.

"We said that as teachers of religion we needed to voice our concerns," Yu said. "We felt we who make our livings teaching and understanding religion should focus on a subject where we have knowledge. What we find most troubling is the President's confusion of his private personal beliefs with what he makes policies of the United States."

Lincoln said he agreed that members of the Divinity School are uniquely qualified to criticize what they view as the President's misuse of religious rhetoric to defend the war. "Most egregious is his attempt to justify the war in Iraq by claiming its goal is to establish freedom, as part of God's desire that humanity be free," Lincoln said. "Worse still is the attempt to pass responsibility for the mess in Iraq to the Almighty, when its author is George W. Bush. The President tries to connect an ugly war and talk of the divine."

Within the last week, media outlets across the country have published or referenced the letter. The National Public Radio show "All Things Considered" aired a segment of the letter twice. There was a lengthy discussion of the letter on the website, and the New York Times may publish it in an abbreviated version.

Larry Arbeiter, director of University Communications and the news office, said the prestige of the Divinity School has generated national interest in the letter. "The University of Chicago is known in the most educated circles as among the most serious and intellectually rigorous of the world's great universities, so the comments of a large number of its faculty members carry considerable weight," he said.

Arbiter commented that the National Academy of Sciences placed the Divinity School at number one in the country in its last rankings of graduate schools, conducted in the mid-1990s. "So when a majority of the faculty at the nation's leading divinity school take such a stand, that is newsworthy," Arbeiter said.

Franklin I. Gamwell, the Shailer Mathews professor of religions ethics, philosophy of religion, and theology said he felt a civic obligation to sign the letter. "The signers of this letter are not speaking for the Divinity School but, rather, for themselves as individuals," he said. "I, for one, believe that we are not only professors but also citizens and have a responsibility to speak as citizens when we believe that we have something to add to the public discussion."

Several of the professors who declined to sign the letter said they did not do so because they disagreed with its premise, but because they believed individual circumstances made it improper for them to append their names. Professor Emeritus Martin Marty said he in no way opposes the letter, but has a personal policy of never signing such materials. Similarly, Professor of New Testament and Early Christian Literature Hans-Josef Klauck said he chose not to sign only because he is not a United States citizen.

Jean Bethke Elshtain, however, never had the chance to see the letter. Knowing that Elshtain, the Laura Spelman Rockefeller professor of social and political ethics, has conservative leanings, Lincoln decided not to approach her.

Yu said the faculty who signed the letter do not believe that politicians should not practice religion, merely that they should separate their private faiths from their public duties. "The President says freedom is God's gift to humanity—a sentiment I don't oppose at all which is noble and praiseworthy, but which he makes his policies," Yu said. "This makes us a theocracy, which the United States was not founded on."