A conservative Republican Congressman from North Carolina’s military and Bible belt, Walter B. Jones, opposed the war in Iraq and is now calling for a pull-out from Afghanistan. For such a courageous stance against party conformity, he should be congratulated. Among likely presidential contenders (leaving aside Ron Paul), the stance on U.S. war against countries we have no hope of transforming and no stated desire to conquer ranges from “We’re not doing enough invading” to “We’re not doing enough invading or enough shoveling of tax dollars down the gullet of the Pentagon.” I heard Tim Pawlenty do his tough-guy routine against the Syrian President—“We give him an ultimatum: ‘You’re gone tomorrow’”—several weeks ago to a group of influential New York neo-cons, who rewarded his promise of aggressive militarism with an enthusiastic round of applause. All the other major Presidential candidates would have said the same thing.
But however much I admire Rep. Jones’ intrepid individualism, I cannot help puzzling over his understanding of how he arrived at his anti-war stance. He voted for the authorization of military force in Iraq in 2002, then started having misgivings about the invasion and in 2005 publicly called for troop withdrawal. The reason he changed his mind, he said, was that God led him to do so:
“I thank God that he made me feel guilty about my vote on Iraq,”
he told the New York Times.
This statement raises a host of questions. If, in Jones’ view, God is anti-war and thus led him to that Godly stance, why are there so many equally devout Americans who are just as convinced of the justice of the Iraq war? Is Jones uniquely attuned to God’s will? The implication is unavoidable that those pro-war believers are mistaken about God’s will—why is that? Does the fault lie in themselves and in their disordered prayer lives? It must, since presumably God would not send readable messages about the injustice of the war to some people and inscrutable messages to others. Or perhaps God sends completely different messages to different people—pro-war to some, anti-war to others–just for the sake of spectator sport? George Bush claimed divine mandate for the Iraq invasion, since freedom is God’s gift to humanity, which he, Bush, was assisting with the Freedom Agenda. Presumably, Jones would say that Bush was mistaken in his reading of God’s will. But how does Jones know that he, Jones, is right and Bush is wrong? Both appeal to the identical and sole piece of evidence: Their personal sensation of God speaking to them. But again, if Bush is wrong, why did he get it wrong? If you were God, and the unjustified loss of American lives (we won’t even mention Iraqi lives) were important to you, wouldn’t it be equally important to get the message out, clearly and unequivocally? Either God screwed up in his messaging or your fellow Christian war hawks are screwed up in their ability to receive God’s will, but I have never heard a believer confront this fact explicitly and either berate God for being coy or accuse his fellow Christians of lacking access to God’s message. Nor have I heard anyone offer a theory as to why there should be disagreement about something so fundamental as God’s will—about war, in this case. If the problem is that man’s fallen state prevents him from perceiving God’s clear messages in all their unequivocal splendor, Jones is therefore implying that he is less fallen than his fellow Republican religious war supporters.
But when pro-war believers hear Jones’ claim, do they believe it? And if not, why not? Do they say: Jones is mistaken about God’s making him feel guilty about his vote in Iraq? How could a believer be mistaken about his access to God’s will? If Jones is wrong, how do they know that they are right? Do they propose any method for resolving such disagreements? As usual, a believer dismissing another believer’s claim of divine insight is temporarily adopting an identical stance towards that mistaken believer as a non-believer does: “Show me the evidence! Your mere claim of access to God’s will is insufficient; you are projecting your own beliefs onto a fictional external reality.” And yet that same believer, skeptical of his fellow-wrong believer’s false claims of religious inspiration, would have the non-believer suspend his skepticism when judging the believer’s own claims of revelation and accept the identical quantum of evidence for it that he finds insufficient in his fellow wrong-believer: the sensation of access to God’s will.
In the past, the religious had the courage of their convictions and killed wrong believers. God’s truth should be worth such a sacrifice. Today, since we live under the reign of secular Enlightenment tolerance (which is not a religious virtue), believers adopt the “Yeah, whatever, I’m OK, you’re OK” stance towards wrong believers, thereby increasing civil peace while betraying the splendor of the word of God.
Needless to say, I am dreading the Republican presidential season. We are going to see an escalating arms race about piety and God-given American exceptionalism. Everyone will be as convinced about their messaging from God as Walter Jones is. Not everyone can be right, which is fine. But when it comes to divine inspiration, I just want some hint as to how we figure out who is wrong.