Speaking to a joint meeting of Congress, President Bush forcefully presented a case for a war against terrorism. His gaze was compelling. His voice was strong. His speech was clear with moments that represented the best of the American tradition.
Bush ascended to the top of the moral mountain when he said the United States respected Islamic faith and acknowledged the good and peaceful teachings of Islam. He wisely distinguished between those of authentic Islamic faith and those who had hijacked Islam. He stated succinctly, “The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends.”
When he expressed appreciation for the prayers of sympathy at a Cairo mosque, he gave the nation tangible evidence of the goodness of Islamic followers. He also encouraged all Americans to show their goodness by refusing to discriminate against those of a different religious faith, a clear reference to Muslims.
Bush’s speech contained a vaulted moral vision of a global civilization that supported “progress and pluralism, tolerance and freedom,” an especially noble objective within America where some religious groups despise pluralism and constantly criticize tolerance.
From the vantage point of just war theory, the clarity of Bush’s speech was mixed. He did make the case for just war theory at a number of points. He said the cause for war was justice, not retaliation. He said the intent of war was to protect global freedom and the American way of life, not preserving Western access to oil as in the Gulf War. He issued clear conditions for peace and a warning for war.
Bush rightly criticized Islamic extremism for its failure to make a distinction between combatants and civilians. Yet he stumbled slightly when he failed to state explicitly that the U.S. military would go to extreme lengths to ensure civilian immunity.
Just war theory states that non-combatants (women, children and others) are never to be targeted. They are always to be protected from harm. How a military force achieves this moral principle in a war against terrorists who live among civilians is most troubling, if not impossible.
Another component of just war theory is the reasonable chance of success. Bush said the war on terror “will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.” Such an ambitious goal fails to pass the test of just war theory.
The promise to rid the world of terrorism reflects the dangerous ideology of purity. It bumps against the line of holy war in which crusaders believe the world may be purified from evil. Sadly, such views are theologically faulty about the destructible nature of evil in a sinful world. The best a nation can achieve is imperfect justice, not divine justice.
A more limited objective would have a better chance of success.
To Bush’s credit, he backed away from using the word crusade. He also did not name the military effort “infinite justice,” the widely reported name on Wednesday.
The biblical witness teaches us to pray for our leaders and show them respect. And we need to remember them in our laying down and getting up. The biblical witness also calls for us to practice discernment–discernment about our loyalty to the state, ways to walk humbly and steps toward justice.
Robert Parham is BCE’s executive director.
Robert M. Parham (1953 – 2017) was the founder and executive director of Baptist Center for Ethics from 1991 to 2017. He served as executive editor of EthicsDaily.com, BCE’s website, from its launch in 2002 until 2017.