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Embattled faith

How do you "support the troops" when you oppose the war? Is there a Unitarian Universalist approach to war and peace?
By Neil Shister
July/August 2003 7.1.03

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The Naval Surface Warfare Center, three thousand acres of expansive wetland and scrub bordering the Potomac at Indian Head, Maryland, is where smokeless gunpowder was invented a century ago, a landmark event that transformed “fog of war” from the literal description of a battlefield to a strategic metaphor. These days propellants and pyrotechnics are manufactured at Indian Head, explosives for rockets and missiles, “things that go fast and boom.” But on the morning after the war in Iraq began in March, it was worship that brought together some hundred members of the base community. And it was a Unitarian Universalist Navy chaplain, the Rev. Cynthia Kane, leading them.

The occasion was the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual armed forces event that traces its origins to the Continental Congress’s call for a day of “public humiliation, fasting, and prayer” in the early days of the American Revolution. For Kane, presiding in the dress uniform of a Navy lieutenant, the setting was replete with special symbolism. The guest of honor was the Rev. William G. Sinkford, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, invited at her behest. The presence of the UUA’s “top brass” impressed the rank-conscious audience, especially when Sinkford announced that besides being a minister he was also the father of an Army Ranger in the elite 82nd Airborne Division recently returned from Afghanistan.

Rising to speak after pancakes and scrambled eggs, Sinkford embodied the dual and, for many, contradictory strains that characterize the relationship between Unitarian Universalists and, if not the military itself, then the exercise of military power. “I come here with a great sense of gratitude,” he began. “Thanks for the work you do, the protection you afford us, the democracy that you help us preserve.” But, he continued, he was also “one who stood the peace vigil,” one whose fervent position was that “the United States should operate only with the blessing of the international community,” which at that moment it clearly did not have.

Sinkford celebrated the United States as “a work in progress” built around the dream of a community of equality. For the sake of promoting such a dream, he concluded, many Unitarian Universalists, himself included, were willing to go to war. He qualified his stance with a somber proviso, given the events that were just beginning to unfold: “War is not our first choice and, in some sense, it always represents a failure.”

Most Unitarian Universalists would likely resonate with Sinkford’s words, as well as the emotionally charged paradox he finds himself living: troubled by his government’s actions and fearful for his son, yet supportive of the troops. In the first weeks after the Iraq campaign began, the dominant sentiments I heard in my conversations with other Unitarian Universalists were variations on a theme of resigned ambivalence. There were, to be sure, voices of unqualified dissent, like that of the Rev. Robert Hardies. “I will not allow myself to be counted among the coalition of the willing,” he told his congregation at Washington’s All Souls Church, Unitarian, on the first Sunday of the war. “I will not allow myself to be counted among those in whose name innocent lives are taken. I will not allow myself to be counted among those who call the loss of innocent life ‘collateral damage.’ . . . I will not allow myself to be counted among those who fall in line just because hostilities have begun.” But even Hardies, like so many others opposed to the politics of the war, said he respected the men and women charged to wage it and prayed for their safe return.

“Am I in favor of this war?” said the Rev. David Hubner, director of ministry and professional leadership for the UUA and a Naval officer before entering the ministry. “Hell no! Do I want to support the people who are fighting it? Yes. We don’t want to demonize them and render harm like we did to the people who fought in Vietnam by turning them into outcasts.”

What I began to experience, as I kept hearing responses like Hubner’s on my reporter’s journey, was a gnawing sense of a disconnect. What does it mean to say that the war was bad, but our soldiers good? Can a war be unjustified but its actors blameless? How bad does a war have to be before the soldiers themselves are wrong to fight it? In my conversations I was looking for the foundations that helped other Unitarian Universalists decide whether to support the war and support the troops, but I felt precariously balanced on a moral tightrope with no margin for misstep. Wasn’t there, I kept wondering, a Unitarian Universalist point of view that provided more solid footing, one that could ground the choice between war and peace in something other than a provisional answer? I presumed that other religious traditions offer authoritative doctrinal guidance, but how do Unitarian Universalists find their way out of this dilemma?


Unitarian Universalism is not often identified as a martial tradition. At the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington, Virginia, which sits almost in the shadow of the Pentagon, church leaders were hard-pressed to name any members who were active military personnel. But, of course, there are Unitarian Universalist soldiers. According to Lt. j.g. Eric Johnson, a Navy Reserve chaplain candidate and founder of Unitarian Universalist Military Ministries (www.uumm.org), there are approximately 550 Unitarian Universalists serving in the U.S. armed forces around the world.

Johnson, a student at Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, asked military personnel on the “UUMil” e-mail list: “Is it enough that most UUs ‘support the troops’ but do not support the mission?” He reported that many servicemen and women appreciated the gesture—“the older ones say that’s such a change from Vietnam”—but did not always feel supported. One soldier left his church, Johnson said, after a fellow congregant told him, “You are an instrument of murder.”

In Norfolk, Virginia, headquarters to the Atlantic fleet and seat of the largest operating base in the United States, the Rev. Danny R. Reed of the Unitarian Church reckons that about 10 percent of his 230 members are military personnel. Shortly before war began, Reed convened a gathering of military families who wanted to talk. “They kept mentioning the tension they feel in church,” he said. “Nobody said they weren’t welcome, but there was discomfort in being in a church where there is so much opposition to what they do. One soldier said he seeks church as a refuge: He takes the notion of sanctuary seriously to be fortified for the week ahead. But as he walks through the door somebody flips him a leaflet about the peace march that afternoon.”

Ironically, Unitarian Universalist soldiers can be made to feel like outsiders among their military colleagues because of their religion. “The common assumption service guys share is that everybody is more or less the same when it comes to religion,” Reed explained. “So when they ask you about your faith—and bear in mind that common misunderstanding that ‘In our churches you can believe anything you want, there are no rules’—the fear is that your patriotism will be called into question, that ‘Somehow you’re not American.’”

Reed added, “It’s taxing on the spirit to always be on the defensive and have to explain oneself.”

Indeed, when Cynthia Kane decided to join the military two years ago, she took grief from fellow UUs. “Now I know what it must feel like to be a Republican in the UUA,” she said. Base commander Captain Marc Siedband had never even heard of Unitarian Universalists when she arrived. (There are two other ordained Unitarian Universalist ministers serving as military chaplains: Col. Vernon Chandler, senior rear chaplain for the Army’s Fifth Corps in Heidelberg, Germany, and Col. William Grace, an Air Force chaplain at Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.)

Among Kane’s charge of some 500 military personnel and 200 dependents, there is but a single Unitarian Universalist family. When asked what kind of a chaplain she is—Catholic? Protestant? Jewish?—her stock response is, “A really good one!” Now, a year after Kane arrived, Captain Siedband has become an enthusiastic fan. “Unitarianism turned out to be a great match,” he says. “Chaplain Kane’s message is, ‘Reach out to everybody; inclusion; touch people’s hearts.’ I’m surprised there aren’t more UU chaplains in the military.” (Eric Johnson and 2nd Lt. Rosemary Frances, an Air Force reservist also studying for the Unitarian Universalist ministry, hope to join her.)

Kane sees no inconsistency between her faith and her duty. “A lot of my work as a Navy chaplain is no different than when I was in civilian ministry,” she says. “People come to me for support and I provide companionship. My job is to affirm and to promote the integrity of the individual and then counsel them to conscience.” Indeed, the spiritual truth that led her to Unitarian Universalism, that “God is too big to be limited to one concept of divinity,” plays well in adhering to the motto of the Chaplains Corps: “Provide for your own, facilitate for others, care for all.”

Kane’s journey into the military required fourteen years of what she calls “a circuitous discernment process.” Despite being a pacifist, she has long felt a calling to be a Navy chaplain. The logic of her choice still remains unclear. (“It was an argument I ultimately lost with God!” she laughs. “As if I really thought I had a chance!”) Her internal conflict seethed over last year when she was a student at the Navy War College studying the military strategist Karl von Clausewitz, famous for his dictum that “war is merely a continuation of politics by other means” and must thus be accepted as an eternal fact of life. Leaving a lecture one evening, she caught sight of the rows of soldiers’ graves in Arlington National Cemetery glimmering in the amber light of the setting sun—human testimony to Clausewitz—and began crying. “I threw my hands up to a seemingly impassive heaven and asked, ‘What am I doing?’” The answer that soothed her was the acknowledgement that if military conflict is, indeed, etched into the social fabric, then “to do the work of peace, I must understand the making of war.”


Unitarian Universalist historians point out that ours is neither a peace church nor a militant church. Although within the recent past three Unitarian Universalists have served as U.S. secretary of defense—Elliott Richardson in the Nixon administration, and William J. Perry and William S. Cohen in the Clinton years—there is also a strong pacifist strain of thought in the Unitarian and Universalist traditions. The Rev. Dr. John Buehrens, past president of the UUA and minister of the First Parish in Needham, Massachusetts, calls these two contrasting approaches “pragmatism and pacifism.” In giving me a crash course in the history of Unitarians, Universalists, and war, his main point is that different approaches to the use of military power have prevailed at different times in our religious history.

Some of the Congregational churches that had called for the American Revolution in New England also embraced Unitarianism a generation later. (Boston’s Second Church, led by the Rev. John Lathrop from 1768 to 1816, was called “a nest of hornets” by the British.) The Universalist minister John Murray was a chaplain in the Continental Army. On the other hand, most Unitarians opposed the War of 1812. The Rev. William Ellery Channing, who helped form the American Unitarian Association in 1825, also helped found the American Peace Society a few years later. The Rev. Edmund Hamilton Sears wrote the Christmas carol “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” as a peace hymn in response to the Mexican–American war. But Unitarians overwhelmingly supported the Union cause during the Civil War. Thirty ministers served as chaplains; prominent Unitarian officers included Col. Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Col. Robert Gould Shaw; the poet Julia Ward Howe wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” as an anthem for the Union Army. A decade later, however, she would come full circle. Appalled by the slaughter of the Franco–Prussian War, she issued a proclamation calling for the establishment of Mothers’ Day in the name of peace: “Arise, then, women of this day! Say firmly: ‘Our husbands shall not come to us reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy, and patience.’”

World War I provoked a lively confrontation among Unitarians. William Howard Taft, who served as moderator of the American Unitarian Association after his term as president of the United States, presided at the General Assembly in 1917 that overwhelmingly voted—236 to 9—to support the war effort as a defense of democracy. Several ministers who subsequently took principled pacifist positions lost their pulpits, although the most prominent Unitarian pacifist—the Rev. John Haynes Holmes, a cofounder of the NAACP and the ACLU—kept his in spite of his congregation’s support for the war. In 1918 the AUA Board issued a remarkable statement: “Any society which engages a minister who is not a willing, earnest, and outspoken supporter of the United States in the vigorous and resolute prosecution of the war cannot be considered eligible for aid from the Association.” (The Board formally apologized in 1936, calling the 1918 statement “contrary to the fundamental principle of freedom of thought and conscience.”)

World War II was generally supported as a just war. The Rev. Frederick May Eliot, president of the AUA, proclaimed in 1942 that “the churches of our Association stand together in full commitment to the overthrow of totalitarian power wherever it seeks to dominate free people or destroy the institutions of free nations, and in complete dedication to the establishment of a world order in which an enduring peace shall be possible,” but he also issued this appeal on behalf of conscientious objectors: “We all recognize the necessity for national unity in a time of grave national peril, but it is fatally easy for us to forget that there is a basic respect for the rights of individuals to think and act in accordance with the dictates of their own consciences that no need for unity of national purpose or effort supersedes. . . . Our churches should make it a very special part of their business to watch for any infringement of this right.”

The war in Vietnam, however, tore the Unitarian Universalist community. Many ministers tended to become more politicized than their congregants, Buehrens says, and many people left the churches in response to what they took to be the absolutism of thought displayed by opponents to the war. When some congregations declared their churches “sanctuaries” for draft resisters, even some of those who opposed the war thought it wrong to put the church in direct conflict with the law.

“Especially since Vietnam,” Buehrens adds, “we have a large chunk of people in the denomination who do their moral reasoning the way the historic peace churches do, believing participation in the military and the use of violence is never personally justified.” He doesn’t put himself in that camp. Rather, he thinks there are appropriate times to exert military might, but only within the framework of Just War Theory. He says that pragmatists “tend to believe the use of force is justifiable only when it reduces the possibilities of violence in the world, is consistent with international law, minimizes the impact on civilians, and employs force proportional to the danger being encountered.” Codified in agreements like the Hague and Geneva Conventions, the notion of just war is an ancient one. But, as Buehrens points out, it isn’t always a satisfying one: “In between these two positions lie a good many people who do not have a consistent way of doing their moral reasoning about these matters.”

The critical question now, as the residue from Iraq settles, is whether Unitarian Universalism can provide those people in the middle a more reliable, emotionally satisfying approach than situational responses to help them make choices of war and peace. That’s a looming challenge for us as the United States enters a new, largely uncharted historical epoch wherein it is capable—for good or ill—of deploying unrivaled power.


The National War College, where mid-career military officers as well as some civilians are prepared for future high-level responsibilities, was established after World War II, when General Dwight D. Eisenhower saw a need to train broad-gauge strategists because of the country’s new position of world power. My trail of inquiry had led me here, to the cavernous 1903 Beaux-Arts building (the same place where Cynthia Kane experienced her epiphany) in order to ask Allen L. Keiswetter whether Unitarian Universalism can shape an approach to international relations.

Posted at the War College in 2001 to teach “strategic logic” and serve as a resident Middle East expert, Keiswetter is a foreign service officer who served as deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs (responsible for Iraq, Iran, and the Arab Peninsula) from 2000 to 2001 and deputy assistant secretary general for political affairs at NATO from 1993 to 1996. He has been a Unitarian Universalist since 1989, when he returned after nine years in the Arab world convinced that, “if there were a God, that God would have to be Unitarian Universalist out of respect for diversity.” He is a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington, Virginia.

“How,” I asked him, “does Unitarian Universalism inform your teaching?” He pondered for several moments, then embarked on an extended response delivered with an understated candor that must have served him well as a diplomat. “Many students at the War College are techies with engineering or other specialized backgrounds who call themselves things like ‘loggies’ (for logisticians) or ‘submarine drivers.’” He noted, with no value judgment attached, that the military votes Republican by a ratio of seven to one. The implication is that America’s military elite, by virtue of education and job description, tends to live in a reasonably confined, conservative mental universe. “When they leave here, they tend to have discovered the world is a much more complex place than they previously imagined and that there are alternative visions about how it works that they hadn’t entertained.” So far so good—open-minded exposure to multiple points of view as fundamental Unitarian Universalist process—but is there Unitarian Universalist content as well?

Keiswetter replied with a quick primer on the two competing approaches to international power currently shaping U.S. foreign policy.

One is the Jacksonian tradition, rooted in the social revolution triggered by the 1828 election of President Andrew Jackson, which eliminated property ownership as a requirement for voting and turned the United States into a mass democracy. In his seminal article “The Jacksonian Tradition and American Foreign Policy,” Walter Russell Mead summarizes the ongoing impact of this self-reliant, egalitarian, free-spoken, and entrepreneurial tradition in U.S. culture. “Jacksonians approach foreign policy in a very different spirit—one in which honor, concern for reputation, and faith in military institutions play a much greater role. Jacksonian realism is based on the very sharp distinction in popular feeling between the inside of the folk community [America] and the dark world without. . . . Jacksonians have the least regard for international law and international institutions. . . . The second key concept in Jacksonian thought about war is that the strategic and tactical objective of American forces is to impose our will on the enemy with as few American casualties as possible.”

Standing counterpoint to this militant approach is another that favors a more indirect exercise of influence, relying heavily on “soft power.” Soft power doesn’t deny the importance of military force, but uses a country’s culture, values, and ideology to expand its influence. The measure of a country’s soft power is its attractiveness to foreigners—the respect they accord its ideals and institutions, the enthusiasm with which they embrace its entertainment and lifestyle, the zeal they have to attend its schools and emulate its institutions. A country that wields soft power effectively gets others to embrace its own agenda voluntarily (and sometimes without even knowing it).

Soft power can be simply paraphrased: “If I can get you to want to do what I want, then I do not have to force you to do what you do not want to do.” Great Britain did this in the nineteenth century by forging an international consensus around policies required for its own hegemony but consistent with the perceived interests of others: a balance of power in Europe, an open international economy, freedom of the seas. The United States could do likewise today, say advocates of soft power, by positioning itself as the champion for international legal regimes and institutions that organize collective responses to looming global problems that are particularly threatening to America, like weapons proliferation and terrorism.

“I give my students a survey at the beginning of the course,” Keiswetter said, “and typically 90 percent of them will describe themselves as ‘realists.’” By the end of the class, he surveys his students again—and they split much more down the middle. “A little bit of Jacksonian approach is a good thing,” Keiswetter said, finally getting around to answering my question about the content of a foreign policy consistent with Unitarian Universalist values. “It girds the international system to go further. But I believe in the interconnectedness of the world. My tilt is toward a multinational approach.”


As I was leaving his office, Allen Keiswetter gave me a recently published book that’s a bestseller among foreign policy types, The Paradox of American Power: Why the World’s Only Superpower Can’t Go It Alone. Its author, Joseph S. Nye Jr., coined the term “soft power” and is regarded as its leading theorist.

Nye, whose last Washington position was assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, is dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. He has also been a Unitarian Universalist for some three decades, attending the historic First Parish in Lexington, Massachusetts. “The minister came to call shortly after we moved in, I accepted his invitation to attend a service, and I liked what I heard,” he recalled. It took a while to get Nye on the phone—his secretary books his schedule in ten-minute intervals—but when we finally spoke, he discussed the connection between Unitarian Universalism and his approach to international relations.

“Unitarian Universalist belief in cosmopolitanism and the value of others is close to my views that the United States must take into account the interests of others,” he said. “There is a relationship between the normative view [what should be, according to liberal values] of accepting the worth of others and the positive view [what is, empirically] that we are more effective when we take into account the view of others. As a scholar I want to be careful not to confuse what I think ‘ought to be’ as I analyze what ‘is.’ But in this case, there is a coincidence.”

His fundamental premise is that hard power is the ability to coerce whereas soft power is the ability to attract and that wise U.S. policy should seek to maximize both. “Shouldn’t this be self-evident?” I asked, unable to imagine any other approach. “Donald Rumsfeld hasn’t shown much concern for soft power,” he answered briskly. “Over the past two years we have squandered a good deal of our soft power. Public opinion polls show that the attractiveness of the U.S. has declined in the eyes of others in the world because of the unilateral approach we take and unwillingness to take sufficient account of the opinion of others.”

The ultimate claim proponents of unilateral U.S. military action make is that there are moments when evil must be destroyed and at such times there is no alternative to war. In international relations, though, evil is a loaded term. “The danger of the rhetoric is that it resonates differently for foreign audiences,” Nye said. “It can be counterproductive if you believe the world is equally divided between good and evil and anybody opposed to us is evil.” Had he ever called something evil during his government service? He couldn’t recall having used the word. “It didn’t seem like a useful term to communicate with foreign offices—but I’m prepared to use it.” Advocates of soft power need not be complete relativists. Some things are so bad they deserve the term. “When they say terrorism is relative, that one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter,” Nye said, “I don’t agree. The deliberate taking of innocent lives is evil.”

For Unitarian Universalists, however, evil is a troublesome concept. Others more comfortable with doctrinal certitudes seem less troubled about waging the battle against sin. But for Unitarian Universalists, without the compelling figure of an unholy “Other” to serve as the foil for righteousness, it’s harder to draw the line in the sand. President Bush’s call to arms was steeped in Evangelical language, but the echoes of Armageddon in his rhetoric failed to resonate with what I took to be Nye’s notion of evil or, for that matter, anything I believed.


My trail of inquiry kept doubling back upon itself. If there is a Unitarian Universalist perspective that could clarify an uncertain relationship to war, I hadn’t found it. For each statement of apparent principle, there arose a qualifying caveat. Three weeks after the prayer breakfast at Indian Head, Iraq was playing out according to the Pentagon war plan. The scenes of toppling statues of Saddam in Baghdad triggered in America a wave of relief and pride. Yet I continued to sense among opponents of the war, and certainly within myself, a feeling of incompletion that battlefield victory had not resolved. Loose ends dangled.

For perspective, I went to the minister from whose pulpit I was introduced to Unitarian Universalism, the Rev. Thomas J.S. Mikelson of the First Parish–First Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Although my family and I now live in Washington, I continue to regard Mikelson as my minister.

He made it clear that in his mind there was an overarching principle at stake for Unitarian Universalists beyond hard power or unilateralism or even the nature of evil: democracy itself. “It’s at the heart of our faith,” pointing to the UUA’s Principles and Purposes. “You couldn’t get a clearer statement of democratic principles.”

Fundamental to both democracy and our theological outlook is freedom of choice. “In the Judeo-Christian tradition,” Mikelson said, “God gives us the freedom to choose between good and bad. It’s what defines us as human beings. In a democratic society, to take away the right to choose is to take away selfhood.” A civil action imposed on a people without the freedom to decide constitutes a political evil. Thus the operative Unitarian Universalist question to ask with regard to the exercise of military power, Mikelson concluded, is whether or not the citizenry gets to exercise free choice in deciding to implement it. “President Bush did everything possible to paint Iraq as a sacred war against evil. But if there are unspoken reasons for the war, if the real reasons are primarily to extend the economic opportunity of America and other first world powers, then there’s a serious problem here. It’s lying to the public in order to suppress dialogue because if people talk about the real reasons they are liable to resist the war.”


Basing one’s position on democratic considerations was an approach that offered a way out of the conundrum, a way to decide midway down the line whether or not a war is justified. But I must admit that a grander concern about whether and when to employ military force had surfaced in the course of my inquiry. Assume we have entered a new historical epoch with weapons of unimaginable destruction—portable nuclear devices able to vaporize an entire city, undetectable microbes that unleash a plague—wielded by terrorists accountable only to themselves. The proponents of preemptive attack would have us believe not only that such a scenario exists but that it renders traditional protocols and conventions of warfare obsolete. I wasn’t prepared to accept this, but I lacked an effective rebuttal.

The challenge facing religious liberals, it now seemed to me, is to refute the neo-conservatives in contemporary twenty-first-century terms that are persuasive enough to reassure people who perceive themselves under on-going threat. To do so will require an argument that simultaneously endorses a state possessed of sufficient power to protect its citizens while still maintaining a compelling case for the best aspects of our tradition—faith in reason, respect for diversity, the inherent dignity of each individual. What I came to realize, at the end of my labors, was that this is going to be no mean feat.

The propositions we have traditionally invoked risk sounding dangerously naïve in an age of global terrorism. The difficulty so many of us had in crafting a satisfactory response to Iraq—the first battle in this new age of global anxiety—can perhaps best be understood finally as a wake-up call that those of us who tilt toward the antiwar side of the spectrum will need a revitalized, credible argument for peace.

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