At the Christianity and National Security Conference, Paul D. Miller reviewed the history of how Baptists have thought about war, peace, and the just war tradition.

Rough Transcript


Paul Miller: Mark asked me to talk about Baptists and just war theory and I said Mark you know that Baptists are not known for having made a contribution to just war theory he said yeah it’ll be a short talk. Before I dive into that topic look we’ve talked quite a lot today about just war, Christian realism, Reinhold Niebuhr, why are we emphasizing this so heavily and I think it’s worth just dwelling on that why is why do we the speakers people who organize this conference think that it’s so important for you to understand some of this and for me I think the answer is what happened in Kabul you know two months ago, three months ago, that was a in my view a dereliction of duty, it was I think ethically inexcusable and is also strategically indefensible, and I think it stemmed from both President Biden and President Trump’s loss of belief in in the use of the military to defend our interests and to defend our values. If two presidents in a row have come to that conclusion, we see a need to remind and to teach these principles of Christian realism and just war.

These ideas that sometimes in this fallen world we live in we must use force to defend ourselves our interests our security and yes, our ideals as well. That to me is the big picture and that’s why we’ve dwelt on this so heavily if you’re interested in this stuff you can find my effort at a Niebuhrian grand strategy in a book I wrote called American Power and Liberal Order which is secretly a book about Reinhold Niebuhr even though I he appears only a few times in there and Just War I just published this year a book called just war and ordered liberty you heard a bit about the history of just war theory that’s what my book is it’s an intellectual history as well as a current application to today’s world.

So how did Baptists fit into this conversation Baptists and just war theory? By reputation just war theory is a roman catholic property founded somewhat inaccurately said to be founded by saint Augustine and the most famous texts in just war historical theology by Franciscans and Dominicans by Suarez and Victoria by Thomas Aquinas and the 20th century resurrection of just war theory was led by another catholic John Courtney Murray by a Methodist you heard about Paul Ramsey earlier today by James Turner Johnson who’s I believe disciples of Christ is his background, about the only Baptists who have engaged with just four theory are in this room or people or near Baptist I should say some with some connection to the Baptist tradition, Mark LiVecche, Eric Patterson and a few others and I’d help me put myself in that category. But in thinking about this I think it’s actually a there’s a story here worth telling by looking at Baptist participation in war you get to see two rival political theologies emerge, theologies of war.

Two implied just war traditions within the Baptist tradition and these two traditions teach us a lot about sort of I think the true the right way to think about just war as opposed to a kind of a holy war tradition, and they also maybe teach us something about the nature of the American experiment. So, I see Baptist Political Theology rooted first of all in the back historic Baptist commitment to religious freedom and disestablishment, if you’re not aware I’m here to tell you that Baptists invented religious freedom and you’re welcome. All right do you have any Baptists here? Right, where are my Baptists? There we go, good there we go, so that is the cornerstone of Baptist political theology is the idea that there’s no compulsion matters of conscience it’s because we were persecuted by the rest of you in the 17th and 18th centuries by the Episcopalians by the Anglicans by the Congregationalists and the Catholics and so it was very near and dear to us and it was sort of core to our thinking about politics to insist upon disestablishment that made Baptists from the very beginning partial to republicanism small r republicanism to accountable governance to the kind of government that is devoted to the common good, the body politic, to everyone including religious minorities, which is what Baptists were for.

Most of our history that’s why Baptists in the British civil war sided almost entirely with the parliamentary side with Oliver Cromwell’s government they served in the military they fought war for the sake of parliamentary government against what they thought was the absolutist monarchy allied with the Anglican church in the 1640s, they were so well identified with the parliamentary cause that several of them were senior in Cromwell’s government to actually sign the king’s death warrant when he was executed, they themselves were then executed in turn just a few years later.

 Baptists participated in several plots to overthrow the monarchy the 1670s, 1680s and Baptists very much supported the glorious revolution of 1689 and they were the primary beneficiaries of the act of toleration which said that you don’t have to be an Anglican to be British. So it’s unsurprising that a century later Baptists were identified again almost entirely with the American Revolution against again against the British king and against the established Anglican church you can see the natural the national natural sympathy there as the American revolutionaries are fighting for republican principles and then embodying the first amendment fighting for religious freedom and Baptists saw a chance to advance their convictions through this revolution. George Washington wrote a letter to the United Baptist Churches in Virginia in 1789 praising Baptists for their patriotism he says, while I recollect the satisfaction that the religious society of which you are members, Baptists, have been throughout America uniformly and almost unanimously the firm friends to civil liberty and the persevering promoters of our glorious revolution, I cannot hesitate to believe that they will be faithful supporters of a free yet efficient general government.

So, from the beginning Baptists had the reputation of being small r republicans friends of free government that was the cornerstone of Baptist political theology and therefore Baptist war doctrine, wars fought to defend free government were just wars to defend free government were just wars. You saw that with the British Civil War with the American Revolution you even see it in a weird way on both sides of the American civil war as both sides tried to frame their war in terms of a just war argument for republican principles the confederates some of them claimed that they stood in an unbroken line with the founding fathers and they cast their secession and their revolution the rebellion in republican terms of fighting for state sovereignty, popular sovereignty, and federalism. Of course, we know that’s complete bunk, but that’s what they said and it shows that they had this idea that you had to justify war in republican terms. The north of course did the same thing saying they were fighting for the republic and the union and eventually emancipation that their war was just because they were fighting for free government and freedom for the enslaved people fast forward 100 years and you can see this republican sentiment informing Baptist thought in World War II.

I’m skipping a bit because I’m going to rewind and show you the other tradition of Baptist thought on war shortly but in World War II Baptists and evangelicals broadly I think thought rightly about the war, they understood that the allies had just cause and they were able to pull back from crusade thinking as one historian has said in this time evangelicals had quote no qualms about identifying the allies with the cause of justice in the world because they did have justice on their side and they did still often mingle faith and patriotism yet quote they did so without conflating this mission with the cause of the church that’s key to just war they never devolved into any kind of my country right or wrong attitude that is key to just war to believing that your side may be fighting for justice but is not equated with perfect justice, that I think is the best legacy of Baptist thinking on warfare.

Unfortunately, there’s another part of the story Baptists came to this view in World War II in reaction to the excesses of World War I and much of the previous century of thinking about war. In World War I as some of the previous speakers have mentioned Americans and Europeans kind of went crazy in their thinking about war and it was in some sense the high point of crusade thinking about war in the United States and in Europe. Many Americans and Europeans defined the wars as the war to end all wars it was a war to achieve righteousness there was a lot of post millennials in this period they wanted to achieve a kind of a perfect kingdom of God on earth by defeating the forces of evil let me quote a guy named Zane Batten who is secretary of the Northern Baptist Conventions War Commission said this “this war for the destruction of injustice and inhumanity is a holy crusade and a continuation of Christ’s sacrificial service for the redemption of the world.” That’s not just war thinking right and if you ever hear somebody talking about war in those terms you should turn and you should run away go in the opposite direction right, that’s not how we should be thinking about war, war is not a continuation of Christ’s sacrificial service and is not a crusade to you know destroy injustice forever. We’re not destroying the one ring of power here unfortunately this has a longer tradition in the United States. It wasn’t just World War I Baptists and Evangelicals could draw on almost a century of thinking along these lines as early as the war of 1812 Americans have almost always described America as a new Israel sort of given by God a new commission, a purpose on earth to carry out his benevolent purposes.

And so as early as the war of 1812 you saw Baptists and others arguing that again other words of a historian, the war with Britain was about more than maritime rights, economic concerns, or even nationalism, it was about an understanding of how God planned to use America to manifest his divine plan, again words of a historian, of the period America occupied a special or favored place in God’s purposes the sacred nature of the American nation meant the defense of the land was lauded as a noble enterprise. So, this is another example of sort of crusade thinking not just war thinking it’s not about the principles of republicanism and liberty it’s rather the sacredness of the nation itself that makes the war just in this way of thinking about things. During the war with Mexico a couple decades later “Southern Baptists and Methodists championed that war as a straightforward crusade against Latin Catholicism” right one of the rare instances in history in which Baptists straight up took the crew took the flag for a crusade and a war for the true fait this mid-19th century would be the kind of high tide of white protestant nativism in American history.

And so that’s why it’s unsurprising to see this kind of crusade thinking on both sides of the civil war I said just a bit ago they both used republican arguments which is true, they both also used crusade arguments, more clearly the south. The south was very explicit about founding itself on Christian principles you read the confederate constitution they it’s a Chris, they call themselves a Christian nation. Southern Baptists came to argue that the defense of slavery was just because they believed it was a biblical institution. They marshaled biblical arguments to defend slavery southern Baptists the SBC was founded in 1845 to defend white Baptist right to own slaves southern Baptists argued by here’s a quote by ebenezer warren who was pastor of First Baptist Church in Macon Georgia in 1861 he said slavery forms a vital element of the divine revelation to man. And so, South Carolina Baptists a couple years later in 1863 in the middle of the war they said these northerners assume that slavery is a sin and therefore ought to be abolished we contend it’s a scriptural institution, the very nature of the contest takes the point in dispute out of the category of politics and delegates it to the sphere of Christianity we are really contending for the precepts of religion. So again, there you have southern Baptists very clearly describing the American civil war as a religious war, a holy war to defend their version of the true faith which for them included slavery.

The north was not wholly innocent of this kind of thinking though it clearly had just cause as some of those speakers have said that’s only one criterion unjust war you also have to have right intention and it does seem historical evidence points that some northerners northern Baptists occluded maybe lacked that right intention and began to feel as if the war was a holy crusade, particularly after Lincoln announced emancipation. Another quote here, the adoption of emancipation occurred alongside the transformation of the conflict from limited war to total war even holy war, because, as this historian says, northern clergy sanctified in the most explicitly religious terms both the northern cause and the United States itself. So again, the north had just

cause but that does not mean that it was thinking about the war in the right terms you can fight a just war and think about it wrongly and have wrong intention. And it does seem as if the

north maybe as well gave in to some of these crusading impulses by telling itself that because it had justice it was righteous and it itself the union itself became sanctified and it gave birth to a kind of American nationalism infused with Christian rhetoric.

So, you have these two traditions of just war think of war thinking among Baptists what I would call a real just war tradition war for republican principles, and a kind of a crusade tradition where Baptists like many others have fallen prey to fighting wars for the true faith as they saw. That may explain why Baptists did not play a role in the 20th century revival of just worth thinking that you’ve heard about. The two most famous Baptists in the mid-20th century Billy Graham, Martin Luther King Jr., they did think and talk about war, but they didn’t do so in just war terms. Billy Graham was a very ardent cold warrior and a supporter of the war in Vietnam up until the very end when he changed his mind. And Martin Luther King Jr. was a pacifist he gave a famous speech in 1967 in which he announced his opposition to the war in Vietnam but neither of them held to their stances in just war terms.

Billy Graham actually kind of came close to sort of crusade language his biographer has said that Billy Graham, he preached on the gospel and he preached on anti-communism, those are the two things he preached on the most right the only thing he preached about more often than anti-communism was the gospel itself and the way he described the Soviet Union really verged on crusade language sometimes. Billy Graham wrote and sent a letter to president Nixon in 1971 I think in which Billy Graham outlined his own plan for how to win the war in Vietnam and a biographer has looked at this letter and said that at least one element of it Billy Graham advocated carpet bombing civilian infrastructure, which is not consistent with just war principles just so you know right, so there’s an example of Billy Graham thinking through war and not benefiting from the just war principles and doing so in a way that really kind of violated what we would consider to be a just way of waging war.

And Martin Luther King from his part when he described his opposition to the war in Vietnam he described it in sort of straightforwardly pacifist terms he marched down the line he explained why war is wrong he as a nobel laureate at the time he couldn’t support war he thought it distracted attention from the civil rights movement and on and on he did have a few arguments in there about that could be construed in just war terms but I think he applied them inconsistently.

So, again the two most famous Baptists mid 20th century no just worth thinking to speak of and I think that is a sort of a legacy of maybe the Baptist’s lack of consistency in thinking about war over the centuries. You finally start to see some Baptist engagement with and appreciation of the just war tradition really starting with the end of the cold war a little bit beforehand a guy named Carl F Henry, he started to in the 1960s but it really comes to fruition after the cold war when you see figures like Richard Land, Daniel Heimbach, these are all Baptists, Bruce Ashford and Al Mohler have all started to talk to use the war language. There was a debate between Daniel Heimbach and Richard and about the Iraq War, which I think is the very first time in history that two Baptist theologians have argued about war in just war terms and that happened in like 2003. So that gives you some sense of the Baptist contribution here.

With all that said I want to make to you an argument that the Baptist tradition the Baptist political theology is an almost perfect fit for just war thinking and in fact makes a distinctive contribution to it in a way that perhaps other denominations have not been able to, I think we have insights to offers what I’m saying. My friend John Askins is going to talk about Anglicanism in a bit, but I’m going to hold to my guns that Baptists have something to offer. Here the best of Baptist political theology as reflected in our lived experience in wartime is not only aligned with the Christian justifiable tradition I do think that it is actually a distinctive organic and positive contribution to it the doctrine of just war is a near perfect fit with Baptist political theology. I think it might actually be a better fit with Baptist political theology than many other church traditions from which it’s praying because it’s precisely the Baptist emphasis on the separation of church and state, which lays the strongest groundwork for waging wars for the common good and not for the true faith or the true ideology. It lays the strongest safeguards against crusades and wars for religion. I think Baptists more than any other tradition have emphasized that conversion must come from a free conscious rational movement of the soul, that there is indeed no compulsion in matters of faith, no compulsion of the conscience, and thus there is no role for the state in matters of religion, that’s of course the bedrock for our doctrine of religious freedom and disestablishment but it is also the same grounds on which we reject the doctrine of holy war and affirm the doctrine of just war.

The just war doctrine comes to the clearest definition in contrast to the false doctrine of holy war which was widely prevalent during the wars of religion. Advocates of the just war doctrine rejected the idea of holy war to defend the true faith for the same reason that Baptists reject state compulsion and matters of faith at home state power must be kept separate from inner conscience if the state can’t compel in matters of conscience at home, neither should it do so on the international stage. And Baptists more than others understood this doctrine at home and while Baptists were not at the forefront of applying it abroad, I think we can see the consistency between the two. Just war is ideally suited to the architecture of Baptist political theology so to speak its emphasis on disestablishment just war is the disestablishment of the church from warfare, just war is the disestablishment of the church from warfare.

Of course, we’ll still have things to say about war we’ll still try to hold the state accountable we’ll still try to teach about justice but we will not expect the state to wage wars on our behalf on the back of the church nor for our parochial benefit. Finally, I think Baptist emphasis on republicanism, small r, can be seen as an authentic development in just war thinking. One that is distinctive tradition but a genuine contribution older just war thinking tended to describe war as just when it vindicated the common good principles of peace justice and order. As a Baptist I would add liberty peace justice order and liberty which when we institutionalize it we call the institutions of republicanism and ordered liberty and that means Baptists have an answer to the key questions of just war when is war just? The violent disruption of ordered liberty is the injury in response to which force may be used and war may be justly waged. What does justice require? Justice requires the vindication and restoration of ordered liberty in through and after warfare/ Thank you very much.


Do we have time for questions? We do. Questions?

Questioner: Hello my name is Natalie from Liberty University. So, we have this term order of liberty kind of repeated right at the end of you talk so I guess this is a two-part question. One how do we define ordered liberty and know that our version of ordered liberty is good? As well as what do you think our responsibility is after warfare what does that look like?

Paul Miller: Thank you for the question, Natalie. In answer to the second question what responsibilities after war are I’m just going to refer you to Eric Patterson’s book at war’s end he wrote a whole book on it it’s the best book I’ve read on that subject and he talks about the need for order justice conciliation right what’s our obligation after war it is to work for order justice conciliation those are good principles for thinking about justice after war. I’ll give you stuff for okay, ordered liberty in the garden God makes Adam and Eve puts them in the garden and he says tend and keep the garden. Tend and keep, anybody ever done any gardening? Any gardening? Okay. So what do you do in your garden there’s the raw stuff of nature? This is mess, it’s a chaos right, and the gardener has to impose some order on it by making the rows, building the trellis, tilling the soil, planting the seeds in order, and giving it water, so there’s a little bit of imposition of order there. And then you stand back and let nature take its course you give it liberty that I think is a good recipe for bringing flourishing to this creation.

Order and liberty together that’s what bring flourishing. That’s good parenting advice, and it’s good advice if you’re a boss if you’re ever in charge of anything, both order and liberty. So I stand by those principles as objective transcendent transcultural timeless principles of justice and order and peace. What it will look like in any particular application? You know there’s going to be a lot of different applications of it a lot of different institutionalizations of it hours here in the united states I think it’s pretty good but I do a few things different right the first amendment is not divinely inspired but pretty darn good right. I think that’s a really good institutionalization of order and liberty on matters of conscience and state and free speech online so I’m not really answering your question I was saying yeah it’s going to look different, but the principles I would argue are timeless.

Questioner: Hi my name’s Catherine I’m also from Liberty and I had a question on how asymmetric warfare relates to just war theory? How do those two correlate with each other?

Paul Miller: So are you asking how do we fight against an asymmetric enemy? Like an insurgent?

Questioner: Yeah, so like with insurgencies and terrorism and the war on terror, how does just war theory apply to that?

Paul Miller: Yeah, it does apply in a number of ways. Number one you know asymmetric asymmetric enemies by definition are smaller less powerful right and so it there’s maybe a slightly greater burden on us to exercise the restraint necessary to maintain proportion and discrimination proportionality right, you don’t respond to a terrorist with a nuclear bomb, that’s immoral, it’s also strategically dumb because you’re gonna cause a backlash. So that’s one way in which just war principles would apply. I think it’s a greater burden to exercise some restraint there’s another way and it gets back to this question about justice war how do you defeat an asymmetric movement like Jihadist terrorism? That’s a harder question and I’m probably, I may be a minority on this because I think the answer is we have an obligation in so far as we are going to engage in this war if we’re going to fight against Jihadists who have attacked us in this very city and in New York, not simply the war is not about killing bad guys that is not what the war is about, and I think Joe Biden gets this completely wrong right, he said we got Bin Laden time to go home. That means the war is just about killing bad guys and I can’t defend that.

You kill people not as an individual but only so that you have the opportunity to build justice and peace, which is what we did not do in Afghanistan or Iraq. We did not build justice and peace there. Now we can have an argument about why we failed to do that, I think we should have done more peacekeeping, more reconstruction, development all that kind of stuff, but to me that’s what it would take to wage this war justly. Fight the war in Afghanistan with the clear intention and with the resources required to usher in some kind of justice or peace which we obviously failed to do. Make sense?

Questioner: Jenna, also from Liberty. Why do you think Baptist didn’t engage with just war tradition if it’s such a good fit Baptist theology?

Paul Miller: Yeah, great question. Just like the early Christians didn’t really think about political power much because they were they were persecuted minority and they didn’t have power for the first three centuries similarly Baptists were a minority and they were persecuted they didn’t have power so they didn’t have a reason to think about warfare or what to do with state, with a state power, they were more concerned with how to limit state power to stop being persecuted. Insofar as they had the chance to participate in war, they just chose the side of republicanism and liberty. I think that’s probably the best answer you see as Baptists are more mainstreamed within American culture and they’re not, y’all know Baptist history right, they’re generally the lower classes, but as Baptists become more sort of mainstream that’s when you start to see more Baptist engagement with this kind of thinking.

Questioner: Thank you Dr Miller. Christopher Parr from Southern Seminary. You mentioned how crusade thinking has taken on a role in Baptist life and I think in recent decades it’s taken on the form of culture war so is there a way that just war thinking can help us avoid a crusade type posture towards a titling Baptist and people of all faiths are experiencing cultural pressure?

Paul Miller: Somebody has written this article. There’s an undergraduate thesis I looked at. I’m hesitant to apply the just war framework to something that does not literally involve killing That said, with the culture war which is a real thing, I think it’s still helpful to be reminded to wage even that culture war a political cultural conflict with magnanimity and grace right, as Christians were not exempt from the requirement to let your speech always be gracious, right because out of the heart the mouth speaks, to be aware of the tongue, because it is a you know. So, when we wage the cultural war we certainly ought to do so consistent with what we might say are just war principles of discrimination proportionally. I think that’s not necessarily the best way of putting it, but I am saying as we fight the culture war let’s do so with right intention with love towards our enemies. I’m troubled sometimes by what I see on both sides of an effort to mock deride denigrate destroy the reputations of others I think those are probably unhelpful ways of carrying on whatever political advocacy you want to carry on.

Questioner: Thanks Dr. Miller. My question revolves around this past, this line of Jesus in John 18 where he says he’s in front of Pilate and he says my kingdom is not of this world if it were my servants would fight to prevent my arrest and I’m, I’ve always been interested in that verse and I’m wondering if you could explain if and how that relates to just war theory, and especially we’re saying the church not being separate from the state when it comes to war, or kind of this idea of crusade? Yeah. Could you give back that?

Paul Miller: That’s a, thank you, that is a perfect expression of why holy war is wrong, right. Jesus says my kingdom’s not of this world, we’re not called to fight wars or build governments to institutionalize Jesus’ rule, we’re simply not called or given authority to establish theocracies or to force anyone to agree with us religiously. So that is why we’re not holy warriors and we never should be. That’s separate from what Paul says in Romans chapter 13 when he says God has ordained that the government exists. He’s given the ruler a sword He’s not given the rule of sword in vain, and it is a divine or ordinance that the government exists to uphold some sense of order and justice in this world. So those things exist side by side, government exists with coercive power by God’s ordinance, and we are not to use it to try to build God’s kingdom.

Thank you.