When President Obama and Russian president Dmitry Medvedev met in Prague on April 8 to sign a new agreement on nuclear weapons, it marked one more step in the religious community's long campaign to reduce, if not end, the threat of nuclear war.
The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, aims to reduce each country's deployed strategic warheads to about 1,550 each and cut the number of launchers from the currently permitted 1,600 to 800. It would also cap the number of nuclear-armed missiles and bombers.
For Christian denominations both at home and abroad, the pact represents a major victory in a campaign that has waxed and waned since the first atomic bombs were dropped at the end of World War II.
On August 20, 1945, just days after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Protestant leaders issued a statement expressing their "unmitigated condemnation" of the attacks. Less than a year later, a commission that included theologians Reinhold Niebuhr and John C. Bennett issued a full-bodied report that declared, "We have sinned grievously against the laws of God" in using nuclear weapons.
But as David Cortright, director of policy studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, has noted, an ambivalence marked Christians' responses to the bomb over time.
"As the Cold War intensified in the late 1940s, some of those who had greeted the bomb with horror now came to accept it as a necessary deterrent against godless communism and the perceived threat of totalitarian aggression," he wrote in the Spring 2009 issue of Yale Divinity School's journal Reflections.
The 1980s, however, saw a resurgence of religious and secular antinuclear campaigns, including the Catholic bishops' 1983 pastoral letter "The Challenge of Peace" and organizing by the evangelical social justice group Sojourners. The National Association of Evangelicals joined the push later in the 1980s.
More recently, the so-called new evangelicals have organized the Two Futures Project, a movement that calls for the abolition of all nuclear weapons.
The Catholic bishops' 1983 letter put the nation's largest religious community squarely in the midst of the public debate over the Reagan administration's nuclear arms policies. The bishops endorsed a "no-first-use" declaration by the U.S. and voiced support for a comprehensive test ban treaty, both of which continue to be sticky issues in arms control debates. But they supported continuing the policy of deterrence, even while making their approval "strictly conditional" and "a step on the way to progressive disarmament. …