War between Iran, Israel, and the U.S.—which could militarily entangle Russia—is becoming probable. Christian leaders have played an influential role in shaping this deeply troubling state of affairs by encouraging their flock to vote Donald Trump into power—which a stunning 81% of Evangelicals in particular did. Some of the most influential among them, including Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Christians United for Israel (CUFI) founder John Hagee, et al. pressed Trump to abrogate the Iran nuclear agreement, move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem without offering the Palestinians reciprocity, and effectively encourage Israeli territorial expansion in the West Bank, which Palestinians claim as part of their future state. The Trump administration's policies on Jerusalem and the Israeli-Palestinian issue have not only reinforced Iranian leaders' threat perceptions of the U.S. and Israel but have also provoked the ire of the broader Muslim world, as the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation has made clear. Although leading Arab-Muslim states, including Saudi Arabia, have subordinated these issues for the time being to the priority of addressing Iran's threats to their security, the disposition of Jerusalem and the Palestinians will inevitably return to the fore in a violent way in the absence of substantive negotiations. Russia will also exploit divisions between the U.S. and the Arab-Muslim world over these issues to re-insinuate itself in the region. The seeming intractability of these problems compels one to ask the question, is America doomed to perpetual conflict with the Muslim world? It seems so, if the views of Evangelical leaders such as Franklin Graham and Robert Jeffress remain politically ascendant. Graham has described Islam broadly—which approximately 1.6 billion humans claimed as their religion as of 2010—as an “evil” religion. Jeffress has described it as a “heresy from the pit of Hell.” Perhaps some intelligent nuance would better serve us. In a speech before the Israeli Knesset on January 22, Vice President Mike Pence addressed the Iranian public, “We are your friends, and the day is coming when you will be free from the evil regime that suffocates your dreams and buries your hopes.” Self-declared prophet and astrologer John Hagee believes that Iranian and Russian advances in Syria are indicators of the fulfillment of supposed prophecies of the biblical book of Ezekiel 38-39, in which “God” manipulates the minds of human beings to cause them to go to war with each other—all for his glory. Hagee’s church claims 22,000 active members and his political organization CUFI boasts four million. These leaders seem to be inclined by the distorted religious prism through which they interpret world events, to believe that America is indeed fated to remain locked in conflict with the Muslim world until Christ returns (whenever that may be). Such depressing prophecies are self-fulfilling and therefore potentially avoidable, if we humans follow our higher, more empathetic instincts. The Problem of Evil Many Christians—and Americans more broadly—might logically conclude that Iranian leaders are evil based on the following supporting evidence: they lied to the world about their development of a nuclear weapons program, are pursuing the annihilation of the state of Israel, have obfuscated and obstructed accountability for the brutal Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad even after his use of chemical weapons, they repress the rights of Iranians, etc. None of these facts are in dispute. It is important, nevertheless, to be judicious with such a potent, roughly 1,000-year-old word as 'evil', which the Oxford Dictionary defines as "profound immorality and wickedness, especially when regarded as a supernatural force" and "of a force or spirit embodying or associated with the forces of the devil." One cannot negotiate or compromise with evil, or otherwise does so at great moral and existential risk. Political leaders accordingly wield the word 'evil' to coalesce public opinion firmly in support of confrontational policies determined necessary to defend vital national security interests. Mirroring the rhetoric of American and Israeli hawks, Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, describes the U.S. as "the Great Satan". We know why Iranian leaders are arguably "evil" but most Americans probably have little to no knowledge of why Iranian leaders demonize our own government. Concluding that Iranian leaders are simply evil precludes us from even wondering why they hold reciprocal views; instead we assume that their religion or ideology dictates their hostility. Trump's former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, in his book The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies, co-authored by Michael Ledeen, concludes, "Tehran's war against the West is not based on a desire for territory, or on real or imagined grievances; it is rooted in the nature of the Islamic Republic...." Flynn and Ledeen omit much from the sordid history of U.S.-Iran relations, without which it is impossible to appreciate the drivers of Iranian leaders' hostility against the US. A full accounting of U.S. actions against Iran—including orchestrating a coup against the democratic government in Tehran in 1953, supporting the repressive Shah of Iran for two and a half decades without regard for the human rights violations of his security forces, and deliberately enabling Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s—would produce an image of the U.S. that most Americans would prefer not to see because of how closely it has at times resembled that of our enemies. As much as peace between the U.S., Iran, and Israel would be preferable, this may not be possible. Iranian leaders might be too psychologically captured by their desire for self-aggrandizement and revenge in lieu of any semblance of justice to be willing to make the necessary compromises. It is also important to note that the U.S. and Israel have not exactly been amenable to substantive compromises under the Trump and Netanyahu administrations. Neither international relations nor the human emotions they are rooted in are fixed realities however. These are difficult to change, particularly when they are so deeply connected to humiliation and trauma, but not impossible, as Saudi Arabia's moderation of its policies encouragingly demonstrates. The Arab-Muslim world has communicated its willingness to make peace with Israel since 2002 and Egypt and Jordan have had peace treaties with Israel since 1979 and 1994, respectively; albeit not until after several major rounds of conflict. Jesus taught that the two greatest commandments are to love God and to love one's neighbor as oneself, including one's enemies. One might apply Christian values to foreign policy in terms of diplomatic poise motivated by the desire to minimize unnecessary suffering in the world: the foundational value of just war theory. This would entail maintaining, in dynamic tension, military deterrence and clear communication of a willingness to compromise on reasonable terms. Indulging in our baser desires to conquer and humiliate, in contrast, will eventually bring more suffering upon us, as well as the millions of human beings who will be trapped in the middle of another layer of an already highly volatile conflict. Transformational diplomacy with Iran will admittedly remain an elusive prospect, at least while its current Supreme Leader remains in power. Nevertheless, the Trump administration should continue to explore the potential for it while there is still time before yielding to the overriding morality of self-defense of the U.S. and its allies. About the author: Thomas Buonomo is the Humanist Studies Coordinator with the American Humanist Association and a former Evangelical Christian. His writing on Middle East affairs has been published by the Atlantic Council, Middle East Policy Council, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Securing America's Future Energy, and other publications. His views do not represent an official position of the American Humanist Association.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.