Mainliners’ wrongheaded push for American disarmament

An LGM-118A Peacekeeper missile test launch at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California in 1989. The first-stage solid rocket ignites as the missile clears the silo. Photo by U.S. Air Force via Creative Commons

WASHINGTON (RNS) — In 1985, as a 20-year-old college student, I attended public hearings by the United Methodist Church’s bishops as they drafted their pastoral letter on nuclear weapons.

I was interested in political pronouncements from my own denomination. And, as an intern for a group supportive of President Reagan’s “Star Wars” missile defense proposal, I was focused on the great public debate during those years about nuclear weapons.

“In Defense of Creation,” the letter issued one year later from the United Methodist bishops, rejected nuclear deterrence and any plans for defense against nuclear missiles.  Instead it advocated for almost exclusive reliance on arms control and effectively called for unilateral disarmament by the U.S. Its tone, like much of the 1980s global peace movement, was apocalyptic. Pacifist theologian Stanley Hauerwas sardonically noted the bishops were more confident about denouncing Reagan’s missile shield than affirming God’s sovereignty over humanity.

Methodist and other mainline Protestant groups in those days were outspokenly both anti-nuclear and anti-military, loudly endorsing the nuclear freeze that the Soviet Union supported while going further to demonize all American possession of nuclear weapons.  Exasperation over this naïveté from my own church and others about the continued relevance of military force, nuclear and otherwise, in preventing tyranny and war generated my own lifelong work to reform Methodist and Protestant political witness.

Fortunately, the 1980s-era mainline Protestant and ecumenical counsel for nuclear and other disarmament by the West was rejected by the U.S. and other Western governments. Intermediate-range nuclear missiles were deployed in NATO countries to counter the Soviet nuclear buildup over previous years. This deployment, along with Reagan’s missile shield plan and the wider U.S. nuclear and conventional military buildup, were key in persuading a previously resurgent Soviet Union that it could not win an arms race with America. Reagan and the Soviets subsequently negotiated the first-ever reductions in nuclear weapons, which preceded the fall of the Soviet empire itself. The U.S. buildup that church groups decried as a tripwire to calamity helped precipitate instead a peaceful end to the Cold War.

Mainline Protestant church groups, now much smaller than they were 30 years ago, continue to push American disarmament as key to world peace. They and other progressive religious voices also imagine an elimination of nuclear weapons through primarily moral example and persuasion. Today, as during the Cold War, their assumptions and proposals are utopian and dangerous.

For decades since the Cold War the U.S. has reduced its nuclear weapons and postponed modernization of remaining forces, even as Vladimir Putin’s Russia has increased its own force and its strategic reliance on them. Meanwhile, dangerous regimes like North Korea strive to achieve their own deliverable nuclear capacity.

This image made from video of an undated still image broadcast in a news bulletin on May 30, 2017, by North Korea’s state television, KRT, shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, and a missile launcher in North Korea. KRT aired a video of Kim apparently giving field guidance at the test fire of a Scud-type ballistic missile, which reportedly took place the previous day. Independent journalists were not given access to cover the event depicted in this photo. (KRT via AP Video; caption amended by RNS)

In response, the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) aims over the next 30 years to modernize U.S. forces and increase their flexibility to deter evolving threats. It abides by current treaty commitments and does not increase overall reliance on nuclear weapons but seeks to reduce potential misperceptions by adversaries that they could gain strategic advantages through their own nuclear reach.

Critics of U.S. nuclear weapons often complain of their cost. But nukes are typically cheaper than conventional military forces. The NPR anticipates that spending on nuclear weapons even during modernization will not exceed 7 percent of the total defense budget.

Church and other religious opponents of U.S. nuclear weapons naturally oppose NPR, which they portray as a dramatic expansion. But it largely maintains the status quo, if anything increasing security and safety through long-overdue modernization of aging systems.

NPR perhaps most troubles these critics because it counters their dream of a world free of nuclear weapons. But no responsible government can base the security of its people on dreams. Nuclear weapons are a reality unlikely to leave this world. Experience teaches that American disarmament does not motivate adversarial regimes to disarm.  More typically the opposite is the case as ambitious adversaries, when no longer deterred by unapproachable strength, are tempted to fill the void created by perceptions of vulnerability. Such misunderstandings can lead to war and catastrophe.

Christians, in examining war and peace, must not be wishfully ingenuous but instead must acknowledge fallen humanity as it is. Tyrants and aggressors, who are always with us, perhaps unto the end of the age, are perpetually searching for advantage. They often can be deterred by strength. They rarely if ever are persuaded into good behavior by the weakness of their adversaries and potential victims. This insight is as old as the Bible and is confirmable by daily observation in every age.

Over 30 years ago I was chagrined by my denomination’s retreat from the wisdom that prudent Christian realism should provide, sadly making its political witness irrelevant. Today I hope American Christianity across traditions will search for a stronger foundation on which to base its witness about war, peace and power. This foundation will trust God but not deify humanity.

(Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity and American Foreign Policy, and a former CIA analyst. The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.) 

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Mark Tooley


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  • If Mutually Assured Destruction is the only conceivable course in a sinful world, I suppose you are OK with North Korea and Iran building their own stockpile of nuclear weapons. After all, with the current imbalance we can’t use ours to deter them from their attacks on our allies and our interests. Besides, considering the threat our nuclear weapons pose to them, they certainly won’t feel safe until they have their own, and they will surely find a way to get them. It occurs to me that you should not only tell the President he’s on the right track here, but that he should help everybody acquire nuclear arms. Going M.A.D. is the only way to be safe.
    It should be obvious, but I should add. I disagree with the author.

  • Mark Tooley? I remember you.

    According to John Swomley, “Covert ops, Christian-style: Former CIA operative Mark Tooley now works for the religious right”, The Humanist, July 1, 1996:

    “Former CIA employee Mark Tooley [was] hired by the right-wing Institute on Religion and Democracy … Tooley … learned his trade of dirty tricks in the CIA … [He was] hired by the IRD in 1994 after an eight-year stint with the CIA … [IRD’s] primary source of revenue continues to be right-wing foundations, and its leadership is a board of right-wing Christians. Under the pretense of church reform, the IRD attacks those who do not conform to its ideology, but it never attacks churches with right-wing agenda.”

  • Thanks for the heads up. The article screamed of someone living on wingnut welfare. Your post confirmed it.

    There was so much ridiculous revisionism in the article. Reagan’s expansion of our nuclear arsenal brought us closer to nuclear Armageddon than we had been in over twenty years before. Closer than most of the world realized. The author seemed to forget that the USSR sincerely believed the US was likely to strike first based on Reagan’s bellicose actions. In 1983, we almost had an accidental WWIII because the Soviets had momentarily mistaken a field exercise for an attack. Had the USSR adopted Chinese style economic policies, they would still exist and all that nuclear buildup by us would have made the world even more dangerous.

    Trumps plan is !diocy in motion. Smaller nukes that he wants means ones more likely to be used tactically. Meaning more likely to bring a major nuclear retaliation in response. Nuclear weapons are not a deterrent if you are more likely to use them in situations where they do not belong.

    Who do we have left who is an actual existential threat to the US? Nobody.

  • Glaringly absent from this article is any discussion of whether the use of nuclear weapons is itself morally acceptable. It accepts consequentialism as a given.

  • It is most likely I’m the only poster on this site who has been at DEFCON ONE. We had two A-6 Intruders loaded with nukes ready to launch off the USS Coral Sea CVA-43 with the mission to destroy the US Naval base at Cameron Bay after Saigon fell. In addition there was a Soviet fast attack sub tailing us and its job was to eliminate the carrier task group with nuclear tipped torpedoes. We didn’t know if we would be alive from one minute to the next, an experience I never want to repeat nor do I want anyone else to feel that utterly hopeless. So yes I want complete & total nuclear disarmament. To think one person, the POTUS, should have the power to completely destroy the world with a single order is a level of ignorance and arrogance that cannot be described and at the same time is completely unacceptable.

  • The only time I could think of where the answer was “yes” would have been Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What few people take into consideration is the alternatives to the bomb had far worse ramifications:

    1. Millions of additional Japanese civilians dead by blockade created famine or firebombing

    2. The likelihood of partitioning of Japan into a Communist Hokkaido and US friendly South Japan

    3. Japan had about a million well equipped, experienced troops in China it was going to use to defend the homeland with.

    4. Even after the bombs, many wanted to fight on. The Emperor was almost deposed by a clique of Army officers prior to giving the surrender order.

    But after 1945 and with the Cold War and MAD, the answer is never.

  • “Christians, in examining war and peace, must not be wishfully ingenuous but instead must acknowledge fallen humanity as it is.— Mark Tooley

    Why? No answer. Except…

    “Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius.”

  • Questions:

    1. Why would we assume – despite our occasional spat — that Russia has any desire to nuke us? How would losing our exports (which they need) to nuclear ash benefit them?

    2. Why would we need to add more nukes? We have 6,800 and Russia has 7,000….does that really matter given the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction.. Would those 200 extra warheads matter?

    I think Christians need to be careful in not trying to view nuclear issues through a lens of what some guys wrote 2,000 years ago when the worst thing was a chariot or spears.

  • For example the Commandant of the Coast Guard flat out told Trump to go —- himself when it came to a trans ban.

    Def. Secy Mattis has been pretty much ignoring his boss or politely telling him, “we aren’t going to do that”.

  • As a nearby pastor to Purdue University who was both aware of the idiocy of unilateral disarmament and a student of the the report “Charlottesville, 1990” drafted by the Institute for Technology Assessment, a research arm of the federal government that explored what it would be like for a city such as Charlottesville to survive intact from a nuclear strike on Norfolk, Virginia. I created a table top exercise using the data from that report. I then used it in an exercise with the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship that was active at Purdue.

    As the exercise unfolded, and “radioactive survivors” and the mass of other frightened residents from the Norfolk area made their way toward Charlottesville, it took less than 20 minutes for these peace advocates to turn rabidly fascist. They deployed police forces to prevent refugees from entering the county and instituted other policies designed to “protect” the city from these ‘outsiders’ as well as to suppress the civil rights of the residents of Charlottesville itself.

    The exercise disabused them of the notion that a unilaterally disarmed nation could be use moral persuasion to convince an aggressor. It also made them painfully aware of their own selfishness.

    More recent documents have revealed that Russia’s ‘second strike’ strategy was to infect this nation with smallpox. Perhaps our only hope for these Progressive Mainline Dreamers is their eventual extinction due to the combination of membership loss and falling donations that continue to signal their decline.

  • To your first statement: there are two of us now.

    As you may want to remember, there isn’t a red button on any President’s desk that when pressed launches nuclear weapons. There is a protocol through which the Command Authority has to confirm such an order as valid and necessary.

    Having looked some of the nation’s adversaries eye-to-eye, I do not trust moral persuasion, especially on those who have a dystopian view of a future which longs for the world’s destruction from the Thirteenth Prophet