AMERICA'S religious community has, since the Vietnam War, provided the leading critics of U.S. military involvement. That was certainly the case when President Bush sent U.S. troops to Panama in an effort to capture Gen. Manual Noriega.
But the churches have been much more supportive of Bush's decision to send U.S. troops to the Middle East, primarily to defend Saudi Arabia, in the wake of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.
In a sense, the churches' response generally echoes that of Congress -- supporting what Bush has done so far, but expressing concern about what happens next.
The religious community has been unanimous in condemning Iraq's Saddam Hussein for the invasion of Kuwait. Differences have focused on other issues.
The first criticism of the U.S. military buildup came from a Quaker -- and pacifist -- group, the American Friends Service Committee. The group urged Bush to make greater diplomatic efforts and to end the military buildup and let U.S. troops be replaced by United Nations and Arab forces.
The AFSC also argued that the present crisis had its roots, in part, in the worldwide arms trade, in which the U.S. has played a significant role.
The Rev. T.J. Jemison, president of the National Baptist Convention USA, Inc., the largest U.S. black denomination, criticized U.S. involvement, saying "We are not fighting over any principal or ideal. Our fighting ... right now is over oil."
He later backed down, saying "As true Americans, we owe allegiance to the Stars and Stripes forever."
The Rev. Paul Sherry, president of the United Church of Christ, and the Rev. John Humbert, president of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) wrote to Bush urging restraint and greater reliance on the U.N. They also criticized the embargo against Iraq, saying, "We urge that food and medical supplies not be withheld from Iraq's civilian population."
In some ways, the most striking support for Bush came from the National Council of Churches, which has been among the sharpest critics of past U.S. military efforts. The council referred to the "unjustifiable act of aggression by Iraq against Kuwait" and said it "supports the demands of the international community for a speedy and complete withdrawal of Iraqi forces."
Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk of Cincinnati, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, responded to Bush's call for prayers by asking for prayers for peace, international cooperation and for members of the U.S. armed forces and their families. He later added to that list prayers for the hostages being held in Iraq and Kuwait.
The bishops also addressed a related practical issue. Archbishop Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, chairman of the bishops' committee on international policy, called on the Senate Appropriations Committee to appropriate $661 million to pay for 1990 U.N. dues and arrears.
Eleven leaders of Jewish organizations met with Defense Secretary Dick Cheney on Aug. 24 and issued a statement supporting Bush's "policies and actions in addressing Iraq's aggression."
Salam Marayati, director of the Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council, says Islamic groups in the United States have condemned the invasion of Kuwait.
Two church relief organizations -- Church World Service, the National Council of Churches' relief arm, and Catholic Relief Service -- have announced plans to aid refugees fleeing Iraq and Kuwait.
CRS said it will donate $15,000 to provide food for thousands of Egyptian refugees arriving in the port of Nuweba, Egypt. CWS issued a special appeal for $75,000 to aid refugees from Iraq and Kuwait.
The U.S. Interreligious Committee for Peace in the Middle East has called on churches, synagogues and mosques to take part in a weekend of prayers for peace in the Middle East Sept. 14-16.
The committees leaders include Al-Hajj Dawud Assad, president of the Council of Mosques, USA; Dale Bishop, director of the National Council of Churches' Middle East Office; the Rev. J. Bryan Hehir, foreign policy consultant for the U.S. Catholic Conference, and Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, vice president of the World Jewish Congress.
"While at times religion appears to contribute to Middle East conflicts," they said, "we believe the deepest sources in our traditions provide inspiration and wisdom for resolution of these conflicts."
All in all, America's religious community is trying to support standing up to aggression without issuing a moral blank check for unrestrained acts of war.