The U.S., France, and Britain on Friday launched airstrikes against Syrian targets in response to Bashar al-Assad’s latest chemical atrocity. Christian opinion is decisively opposed to the move. By “Christian opinion,” I refer not to public attitudes but to the writers and intellectuals who shape them. From the editors of America, the progressive Jesuit magazine, to my friends Michael Brendan Dougherty at National Review and Rod Dreher at the American Conservative, there is palpable unease among Christian thinkers about intervention and deepening Western involvement in Syria’s hellish civil war.
These are serious and sincere voices. None is under any illusions about the Damascus regime. None could fairly be described as an apologist for Assad or his backers in Moscow and Tehran. And yet they are united in the belief that hitting Assad will only make matters worse in Syria and the region.
Christian opposition to intervention in Syria is typically framed in prudential terms: How will we ensure that retaliation won’t trigger a catastrophic confrontation with Russia? Who will take his place if Assad falls, and what will become of Syria’s indigenous Christians and other minorities? What strategic purpose is served by attacking the Assad regime? I suspect that behind these prudential questions lies a more fundamental ambivalence about America and the West. Many Christian thinkers, both lay and clerical, believe almost as an article of faith that U.S. military might can do no right. They also increasingly question the legitimacy of American power.
This is a faulty and parlous attitude, and it can muddle our judgment about a principle that Christian morality takes very seriously indeed: namely, international order.
As George Weigel wrote in an influential First Things essay, Christian moral theology recognizes that “there are circumstances in which the first and most urgent obligation in the face of evil is to stop it,” and, therefore, that “there are times when waging war is morally necessary to defend the innocent and to promote the minimum conditions of international order.” That was in January 2003, as the U.S. was about to launch an invasion of Iraq.
Today Weigel’s essay is held up in some quarters as Exhibit A in the case against Catholic neoconservatism. Yet the principles Weigel laid out are as sound today as they were then, and the troubling outcome of the Iraq project doesn’t automatically vindicate the reflexive Christian opposition to today’s escalation in Syria. Christian supporters and critics of Trump’s move must apply public moral reasoning informed by the faith’s rich tradition of thinking about war and peace. The critics, I believe, have the weaker case—for two reasons.
First, Christians cannot remain ambivalent in the face of grave evil. This is true of the individual soul, who is called to wage spiritual combat against the evil within his heart (cf. Mt. 15:19), but it is also true of powers and nations. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is instructive on this point: “Actions deliberately contrary to the law of nations and to its universal principles are crimes” (2313; emphasis added). And more: “Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man” (2314).
It follows that Christians must support efforts to defang regimes that commit such crimes. According to the U.S. and numerous other Western intelligence agencies and civil-society organizations, the Assad regime is responsible for the vast majority of deaths in Syria’s civil war. It is the Assad regime that drops shrapnel-packed barrel bombs on densely packed civilian population centers. It is the Assad regime that runs industrial-scale torture facilities. And it is the butcher of Damascus who has used chlorine, sarin, and other chemical weapons against his own people, most recently in Eastern Ghouta.
Assad’s depravity goes far beyond cynical power politics and cruelty in wartime of which most nations through history have been guilty. Rather, Assad is racing for a place in the mass-murderer’s Hall of Infamy. Years from now, when the civil war is at last over and the West reckons with its failure to stop Assad’s killing machine in time to save half a million people and counting, it will not do for Christian opponents of military action to say: “But Iraq had gone so badly!” Or: “We couldn’t tell who was good and who evil in that fight!” Or: “Assad was fighting Islamists and protecting Syrian Christians!”
As Weigel wrote, “Whatever its psychological, spiritual, or intellectual origins, moral muteness in wartime is a form of moral judgment—a deficient and dangerous form of moral judgment.”
Second, Christians cannot remain ambivalent when the “minimum conditions of international order” are at stake. Christians, especially Catholic Christians, have spent two millennia thinking about world order. Through the ages, the Church and its greatest theological minds have constantly emphasized the need for a just, well-run, and peaceful order. As Weigel noted, however, the political peace that Christianity has in mind is not the permanent absence of conflict, a condition that is impossible to achieve so long as human life is disfigured by the mystery of evil—even after the Cross and the Resurrection.
Rather, political peace in the Christian sense “coexists with broken hearts and wounded souls. It is to built in a world in which swords have not been beaten into plowshares” (cf. Is. 2:4). It coexists with the fallen City of Man. And in the City of Man’s current geopolitical configuration, there is only one power that possesses the overwhelming force of arms to deter and punish threats to the relatively secure, relatively well-run, relatively peaceful order that Christians and most other people enjoy today. That power is the United States.
Nearly all Western populations, most of whom are at least nominally Christian, live under the umbrella of protection that extends from Washington and spans the globe. Christians are therefore morally invested in the upkeep of the U.S.-led order, which is profoundly threatened by the use and spread of chemical weapons. Today people living in the heartlands of the West have no sense of the horrors of chemical warfare, which even Adolf Hitler forswore. But that blessed serenity will dissipate tomorrow if the U.S. and its allies fail to uphold the century-old international prohibition against chemical weapons today.
To be sure, Christians are right to fret that the moral and spiritual content of U.S.-led world order is impoverished, to say the least. We sense that we don’t belong to Western democracy the way we once did, because Western democracy is often synonymous with license, with unfettered “autonomy” at the expense of faith, family, and community. Liberalism itself has become illiberal, and Christians and other cultural conservatives are usually on the sharp end of it. These are all legitimate concerns. But liberalism’s shortcomings—a debate within the Western family—are no argument against the need for a basic order in which dictators don’t gas children. Put another way, the West would still be obligated to intervene in Syria even if Western democracy were more attentive or less hostile to its Christian moral foundations.
Christian reservations about the substantive content of liberal order, then, are a non sequitur in this debate. Rather, Syria pits international order as such against the forces of dis-order. For Christians, the choice should be clear.