The Religious Left does not like drones and even under the current administration has sounded their alarm. Give them some credit for consistency in that they are reliably opposed to whatever tools are currently deployed in defending America. Some Religious Left critics have tried to exploit Just War teaching against drones, though they are themselves at best skeptical of Just War and are typically pacifists, explicitly or functionally.
David Gushee, a liberal Baptist ethicist at Mercer University, recently opined against drones as exemplifying a “disturbing combination of American arrogance and self-righteousness.” In a recent “Washington Post” online op-ed, he faults them on America’s false notion of itself as the “exceptional nation, the beacon of freedom and justice, [which] can be trusted with the power to kill our own and others around the world in the name of national self-defense (and global security).”
The Religious Left never likes thinking of America as “exceptional,” though their own demands and unique expectations of America showcase their own vivid but unconfessed form of American exceptionalism. Call it what you will, the United States is the most powerful nation. And with this power flows responsibility not just for the security of our own people but also a wider duty for upholding a global peace, to the extent possible. Absent a global police force, the United States is the final arbiter of an approximate global stability. That stability requires America to deter, contain and sometimes deploy lethal force against renegade states and terror groups.
Gushee complains that America would never accept China or Russia launching drone attacks inside the U.S. Indeed not, but is Gushee unaware of the significant distinctions between the U.S. and Afghanistan or even Pakistan, which are unable to police their own nations, and whose governments privately if not publicly consent to U.S. drone strikes? And in the rush to reject American exceptionalism, Gushee and the Religious Left typically refuse to distinguish U.S. and Western strategic actions from pariah states. Germany invaded France in 1940, and the U.S. and Britain invaded in France in 1944. Were American and Britain therefore morally indistinguishable from Nazi Germany?
Typically in Just War thinking, intent is key. U.S. drone strikes on homicidal terrorists operating freely in a failed nation state is quite different from communist China theoretically launching drones against Chinese dissidents residing in the U.S. Could the Religious Left ever comprehend this distinction, or does their seething anti-Americanism blind them to discerning moral judgment?
Gushee complains of the U.S. “self-perception of being in an endless war on terror” is an excuse to overlook moral restraints. Does he dispute that the U.S. is locked in an ongoing conflict with terror groups dedicated to killing Americans and many others? In some sense, the world is always at war and always has been. Fortunately, the current open wars, although vicious, are largely contained in places like Afghanistan, Somalia and Sudan. American power, among other forces, helps to keep them contained, and to deter the explosion of other conflicts that could become more widespread and threatening. This American power provides an approximate peace for most of the world, although there have always been and will always be forces of disorder working against peace and stability. Such is the bent of human nature, which Gushee and the Religious Left are loath to admit.
Similar to Gushee is another Religious Leftist, Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, former president of Chicago Theological Seminary, and now a fellow at the Center for American Progress. In her recent online op-ed in “The Washington Post” against drones, she complained that some drone targets do not actually present an “imminent” threat. She likens drone strikes against terrorists for whom there is not necessarily explicit evidence of an immediate planned attack to the U.S. preemptive war on Iraq. And she cites civilian deaths in some drone attacks, without pondering alternatives that would inevitably entail far more civilian deaths. Thistlethwaite is “grieved” that President Obama is not living up to the lofty promises of his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize speech to wage “just peace.” Doubtless she will be “grieved” by all U.S. chief executives sworn to defend the American people, with lethal force inevitably at times.
Echoing Thistlethwaite, and praising Gushee, liberal Baptist columnist Jonathan Merritt really liked Gushee’s comparison of U.S. drone attacks to China or Russia launching strikes in the U.S, exclaiming: “Hard to disagree with that!” Why don’t these Religious Left critics just go ahead and liken U.S. drones to Nazi Germany’s v rocket attacks on London? Merritt is really upset that U.S. drones are launched against targets in Yemen, a “sovereign nation,” opining: “Last time I checked, America is not at war with Yemen.” Maybe Merritt should check on Yemen’s latest political situation, which is less than rosy, with a very weak “sovereign” government that is not routinely able to act effectively against terrorists. U.S. drone strikes typically occur in nations whose regimes cannot fully police their own territory; otherwise terrorists would not have encamped there. Those regimes usually back U.S. drone strikes privately, even while sometimes denouncing them publicly, unable to admit their own impotence. But Merritt and the Religious Left seem to prefer the pretense that weak or non-existent governments are “sovereign” if it facilitates arguments against decisive U.S. action.
Pretense is the utopian Religious Left’s often favored pose. They prefer to imagine the world as though a family board game, with each player patiently waiting for his or her cards to be dealt. Anybody caught cheating gets a quick slap on the wrist and the friendly game moves forward amicably. In the Religious Left imagination, it’s America that typically cheats, and the Religious Left’s prophetic role is to be the wrist slapper.
The real world is quite different from the imagined board game, and thoughtful Christians are called to develop policies that acknowledge the world for what it is, and to seek an imperfect, approximate justice by the flawed available means. Even in the best circumstances, wars still happen, and the innocent horribly suffer. The goal is to limit the suffering wherever possible, which often demands that legitimate governments must act forcefully and lethally.
People of faith trust that God, in His own time, will fully redeem the world and defeat evil forever. But the utopian Religious Left sometimes wants to pretend their policies can preempt God. Fortunately, their counsel is mostly ignored, on drones, and virtually on every other issue.
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