Nuclear Weapons, Evangelicals, and the Sanctity of Life

By David Gushee

In June 2007, I sat in a three-tiered classroom at the Hoover Institution in Palo Alto and listened in astonishment as former Secretary of State George Shultz told an influential group of evangelical leaders that the Republican icon Ronald Reagan had favored the total abolition of nuclear weapons. He further asked us to get on board with a plan proposed by (gulp) Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, William Perry, and himself to establish getting to zero nuclear weapons as the policy goal of the United States.

It took me back almost 25 years, to my college days, to a speech I gave representing the Class of 1984 Phi Beta Kappa inductees at The College of William and Mary. I dug through my files recently and found this hand-written speech.

Drawing on my major in religion, I compared our graduating class with the first-century Christians of Thessalonica, who had come to believe that Jesus would be returning very soon to end human history and usher in the kingdom of God. I said the urgency of this expectation had created a problem: “If Christ was due tomorrow, why build a house, or build a church, or do anything at all? It was pointless if this world was doomed to imminent destruction.”

And then: “Today we face a strikingly similar situation – a new waiting, a new awareness of the possibility of the imminent destruction of this world. This time nobody waits with joyous expectancy. The threat of nuclear annihilation bears with it the same psychological effects as did the hope for the Second Coming. In both cases, it saps the human ability to plan for the future with confidence.”

Nuclear Winter of Discontent

As a graduating senior at the end of President Reagan’s first term, I was honest in saying that “today’s nuclear arsenals threaten my belief that the plans I have so carefully made for my future will actually have a chance to reach fruition.” It was the second major wave of the Cold War. The conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union seemed to be intensifying. Battlefield nuclear weapons were being placed in central Europe. “The Day After,” a 1983 TV movie depicting a nuclear attack on the United States, reflected the fears of the moment; it had been seen by tens of millions. I was one of those millions who contemplated the nuclear destruction of, as I recall, Lawrence, Kansas. The movie was a major event of the early 1980s and accurately reflected the fears of those times.

Perhaps we have been tempted to believe that American virtue is sufficiently ironclad that our nation could be trusted never to use these terrible weapons wrongly.

And now, more than twenty years later at Stanford, George Shultz was telling us that Ronald Reagan considered nuclear weapons a great evil and had wanted to eliminate them completely. This was shocking enough. But it might have been just as shocking that he was asking the evangelical leaders assembled in that room to help carry forward this aspect of Reagan’s vision.

This request would have been inconceivable apart from a generation of evangelical political engagement that put our faith community on the map in such a way that no morally significant public policy issue can be addressed successfully without our involvement. Ironically, much of that political engagement has been badly flawed. Certainly evangelicals have been no leaders on this issue of nuclear weapons. The Christian Right, which dominated evangelical politics from the late 1970s until 2006, never treated nuclear weapons and their horrible destructive power as a major moral issue in their portfolio. No, they were (and are) concerned about the “life” issues of abortion, stem cells, and euthanasia, and the “family” issues of pornography and gay marriage.

Indifference to Disarmament

I have been among those arguing for some time (see The Future of Faith in American Politics, published in 2008 by Baylor University Press) that this truncated moral agenda is wrong at every level. It is wrong biblically, because no fair reading of the Bible can support such a limited understanding of the moral vision of Scripture, Israel, the church, or, well, Jesus. It is wrong in terms of Christian tradition, which at its best has stayed connected to Scripture sufficiently to attend to a wide range of issues that have gone far beyond abortion and homosexuality. It is wrong logically, because it never even made rational sense to restrict the threats to “family” and “life” to these few moral issues. It is not hard to see that the use of even one nuclear weapon would be a catastrophe for “the family” and for “life.”

It is very clear by now that conservative evangelical leaders, beginning in the 1980s, never undertook any real effort to craft a broader, holistic, morally comprehensive public policy vision. They settled on a strategy of nestling within the Republican Party and specializing there on a small range of sex-related moral issues. They left both economic issues and security issues to the conservative leadership in those fields, leaving them essentially untouched by thoroughgoing Christian reflection. This means that they never joined, but instead actively opposed, efforts that many of us were involved in throughout the latter days of the Cold War to reverse the escalating arms race and prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Even though they adored Ronald Reagan, conservative evangelicals never caught his vision of a nuclear-weapons-free world. It was evident from listening to George Shultz at Stanford that most members of Reagan’s own national security team never caught that vision either.

These days it is clear that the old conservative evangelical leaders do not hold sway over all of America’s tens of millions of evangelicals. From recent polling it is doubtful if they represent even half of all (white) evangelicals. The evangelical political landscape is fracturing. The first major breach came from what has long been called the “evangelical left,” embodied in leaders such as Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo. I argue in my book that there is a distinct evangelical center as well, led by newer voices such as megachurch pastors Rick Warren and Joel Hunter, activist-lobbyists such as Rich Cizik, younger evangelicals such as Jonathan Merritt and Gabe Lyons, and academic leaders at Christian schools such as Wheaton and Calvin.

Meanwhile, black, Hispanic, and Asian evangelicals are at last gaining a “place at the table” in public policy discussions both in Washington and wherever evangelical leaders gather. So people like Gabriel Salguero, Kirbyjohn Caldwell, Sam Rodriguez, T.D. Jakes, and Cynthia Hale are breaking the white monopoly in evangelicalism and diversifying the voice of our community in a much-needed way. The election of Barack Obama, who has actively cultivated relationships with this diverse group of moderate and progressive evangelicals, will undoubtedly help to accelerate current trends.

A New Evangelical Moment?

As the narrow definition of “life” and “family” articulated by the Right recedes, a more comprehensive public policy agenda is gaining ground in this new evangelical moment. Centrist and progressive evangelicals generally have embraced an agenda that includes issues that more conservative evangelicals have previously done little to address, such as immigration, poverty, torture, the environment, and health care.

It is my belief that nuclear disarmament must take a prominent place in this expanded portfolio of issues that evangelicals and other Christians engage in days to come. Whenever any of us articulate what a post-Christian Right public policy vision will look like, the nuclear question must be included among the concerns at the very top of our agenda.

The “global zero” platform articulated by conservative establishment stalwarts Kissinger, Nunn, Perry, and Shultz is exactly the right goal, and puts us in great company to begin or renew our efforts on this issue. Their credentials as foreign policy specialists are unquestionable. Their promotion of gradual nuclear disarmament with the goal of abolition carries enormous credibility. The dream of nuclear abolition that some of us have cultivated since the 1980s (or long before) has now been embraced by some of our nation’s most significant statesmen.

The new Two Futures Project, for example – a Christian movement for nuclear weapons abolition, led by naturally centrist younger evangelicals – seeks to endorse and build upon what Secretary Shultz and company have already begun, by galvanizing popular support for their proposals. Such efforts should appeal to conservative evangelicals who have high respect for these leaders and to progressive evangelicals who have always opposed nuclear weapons as a grave evil.

But there is one more step we must take. Ultimately, evangelicals need a much clearer theological-ethical vision for our public policy engagement on this issue. If we are to avoid being merely captives to the latest political winds, we need to drill down to the foundations of our Christian faith and anchor our politics there.

I think the concept of the sanctity of life provides one possible way forward. Currently I am working on a book in which I explore both the current use of “sanctity of life” and the term’s intellectual origins. Though the phrase is of relatively recent provenance, the idea that each and every human life is of immeasurable value, of exalted, sacred worth, and must be viewed and treated accordingly, is a core aspect of Biblical revelation. It is in the Scriptures that we learn to see human beings, each and every one, as the majestic handiwork of God the Creator and the beloved object of God’s redemptive efforts through history, culminating in Jesus Christ. To look in the face of a human being (each and all human beings) and see there a human being whom God loves infinitely cannot help but have a transformative effect on how we behave toward other people. It creates an obligation on the part of each of us to act so that this infinitely precious person not only lives but flourishes. It creates an obligation to engage public policy on a wide range of issues and to press policymakers to act in such a way that all such precious persons may live and flourish. 

Picture one of your own particularly beloved persons in your mind’s eye. Hold them there for just a moment. Now consider what would happen to them if a nuclear weapon were unleashed over their city.

Picture all people, so beloved in God’s eyes. Picture all other creatures, and the creation, also beloved in God’s eyes. Now consider what God thinks about human beings misusing their ingenuity to create and deploy thousands of weapons all around the world, holding hostage every one of those precious human beings whom God loves and for whom Christ lived and died, and threatening the survival of the creation itself.

Getting Past Fear

Many evangelicals have held back from supporting nuclear disarmament out of the reflexive fear, bred during the Cold War, that we need such weapons to protect ourselves. Perhaps we have also been tempted to believe that American virtue is sufficiently ironclad that our nation could be trusted never to use these terrible weapons wrongly. In response, consider this: first, when hard-headed security professionals like Henry Kissinger say they favor a move toward gradual nuclear disarmament, we can be sure that they have fully considered the security implications. As for the latter concern, surely it is clear in Christian terms that no nation should be viewed as somehow above the misuse of its military or political power. And an accidental nuclear weapons launch, the nightmare scenario during the Cold War, remains a terrible threat in its own right. Such a disaster would not require a lack of national virtue, but only a technical foul-up – of which any nation is capable.

Nuclear weapons threaten life’s sanctity. Their very existence marks an absurd and terrifying negation of life. Thousands of them were left on the table when the Cold War ended, as if somehow they would dismantle themselves when everyone’s attention turned to other issues.

They did not dismantle themselves. We human beings must do that. We created them, we must uncreate them. The most heavily armed nation in the world, the United States, must take the lead. The leading religious community in the United States, evangelicals, must help build the moral consensus required to move toward this goal. To do so, America’s evangelicals must learn to see nuclear weapons as perhaps the ultimate sanctity of life issue, and respond accordingly.

David P. Gushee is Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University in Macon, Ga. He also serves as president of Evangelicals for Human Rights.