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With god as their ally; Since ancient times, warring foes have claimed the deity for their side

As long as there have been battles, there have been warriors calling on God.

No matter that on the other side of the battlefield, their enemies were doing the same.

Rarely has a leader acknowledged the irony. President Abraham Lincoln was one. In his second inaugural address, Lincoln suggested that soldiers North and South read the same Bible and "each invokes His aid against the other." Unlike subsequent leaders who would profess a close relationship with a deity, Lincoln, who never joined a church, was able to accord to the enemy a belief in the divine.

In this most recent war, both President George W. Bush and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein have publicly called on God to lead their troops through battle. And both have intimated that their particular God would prevail.

So whose side is God on, really?

From a recent Gallup Poll, some American Christians would answer firmly, "Ours." A February, pre-war survey said practicing U.S. Christians were more likely than their non-practicing counterparts -- Christian or not -- to favor military action against Iraq. Sixty percent of those who said "religion is very important" favored going to war. The number increased to 70 percent among those who described themselves as members of the "religious right."

Elsewhere in Christendom, believers are less convinced. Two Sundays ago, the Rev. Gary Miller of Hartford's Asylum Hill Congregational Church devoted his sermon to God and conflict.

"To me, the most repugnant thing is to claim that God is on our side," said Miller, a Vietnam-era Army veteran. "God is on the side of the creation, the side of children. God is on the side of wholeness and love and peace."

Near the turn of the last century, one of Asylum Hill's former congregants, Mark Twain, weighed in on the subject with his "War Prayer," which was published after his death. The prayer included, in part, the entreaty that God "help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it."

The Crusades were particularly religion-based. For more modern examples, Mark A. Noll, who wrote about Lincoln's address in "America's God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln," said World War I combatants in both trenches thought they were divinely inspired. The feeling was tempered somewhat among the fighters in World War II, he said.

"Churchill and Roosevelt, they talked about the war for Christian civilization, but I think there was more prayer for protecting people, for bringing about a swift end," Noll said.

"The question is not whether God is on your side," said Maboud Ansari, William Paterson University sociology professor who has written extensively on Iranians in the United States. "In the Islamic perspective, you do things in order to please God. No matter what you do, you do it for the sake of God. When it comes to wars, it becomes problematic. The only time you are certain God is on your side is when you are defending your religion. Otherwise, it is really a matter of political perspective. I think when we talk about God being on our side, we are really imposing our own religious doctrine. People make war."

Discussing God's loyalty to one side or another during battle is different from discussing a so-called just war, said Roger Berman, director of Creighton University's justice and peace studies program. He echoed Ansari: "I think that what a just war would say, not so much that God is on our side, but trying to figure out which side God is on in the first place."

"There is much biblical material -- especially in the Book of Kings -- based on legal material in the Book of Leviticus which explain the different levels of justification for the just and unjust wars," said Rabbi Lewis E. "Buz" Bogage of DePauw University. However, he said that he believes the current war is not just.

Theology and conflict may seem like strange bedfellows -- but they are historic ones. Confederate and Union soldiers -- as portrayed in the recently released movie "Gods and Generals" -- both frequently called upon God in their battles. Ulysses S. Grant said, "God gave us Lincoln and Liberty; let us fight for both." His Confederate counterpart, Robert E. Lee, was a devout Episcopalian who was fond of quoting Scriptures.

Even Adolf Hitler -- arguably one of the most godless men of the 20th century -- frequently referred to himself as a Christian in speeches.

Ansari remembers the '80s, when Iran and Iraq were at war.

"Either side argued that the same God was on both sides," Ansari said. "At the time, people were making a joke of it. How can one fight for the same God?"

Singer/songwriter Bob Dylan wrote "With God on Our Side" in 1963 and traced conflicts from cavalry battles against the American Indians through the Spanish-American War, the Civil War, and both World Wars, through Vietnam. Each soldier comforts himself with the notion that God is on his side.

"The Germans now, too, have God on their side," sang Dylan (and, later, the Neville Brothers). "I've learned to hate Russians all through my whole life. If another war starts, it's them we must fight. To hate them and fear them, to run and to hide, and accept it all bravely with God on our side."

He concludes: "If God's on our side, He'll stop the next war."

Meanwhile, some religious people are praying, but for peace.

At Mercyknoll Chapel in West Hartford, about 40 people gathered Friday to sing, pray and meditate on peace, as they will every Friday during Lent. In the balcony, 12 elderly nuns sat in wheelchairs. Some of their backs were bowed by age and disease, but as Sister Elaine Deasy played guitar, they sang, "Spirit of Love, spirit of peace . . . let there be peace."

Hartford Courant
March 25, 2003