FRONT ROYAL, VA — The British parliament has defeated Prime Minister David Cameron's motion to join Obama's proposed attack on Syria. As of this writing, the U.S. Congress has not acted, but the prospect of another U.S. war in the Middle East has brought some old issues back to life.
And some old players — the most interesting of whom is Christian columnist Cal Thomas, who earned his stripes as a close associate of Jerry Falwell.
During the Bush years, Thomas served as a critical intellectual intermediary between the president and American Evangelicals, especially the Dispensationalists. This curious group supported war not only in Iraq but throughout the Middle East.
Why? Because Dispensationalists thought that war would bring on Armageddon, and thus the Second Coming, in their lifetimes — allowing them to rule over all the Earth with Jesus Christ for a thousand years in the Millennium.
Dispensationalists number in the tens of millions. Their most prominent preacher, John Hagee, who leads "Christians United For Israel," enjoyed his fifteen minutes of fame when John McCain desperately sought his endorsement during the 2008 primaries, won it, and then renounced it when he discovered Hagee's long history of virulent anti-Catholicism.
Have we learned nothing? ...What makes anyone think bombing Damascus is going to bring positive change?
— Cal Thomas, August 29, 2013
Jerry Falwell was no anti-Catholic, and neither is Cal Thomas — but his writing was immensely influential among a broad swath of evangelicals, and especially so among those who backed President George W. Bush through thick and thin. His support of the Iraq War was truly indispensable, and thus his views on the Syria affair are all the more worthy of rumination.
Just last Thursday, August 29, Thomas wrote this sober observation:
By the time you read this, U.S. missiles and bombs may be falling on Syria. Why? Syria hasn't attacked us. It does not pose a security threat to the United States.
Have we learned nothing? The future of Iraq is in doubt after a huge American investment of lives and money. Ditto Afghanistan. After U.S. help in toppling Moammar Gadhafi, Libya is anything but stable. Egypt is in turmoil after the Obama administration backed its Muslim Brotherhood-controlled government, whose leader and elected president, Mohamed Morsi, has been ousted by the military.
What makes anyone think bombing Damascus is going to bring positive change?
When will we ever learn?
Yes, Thomas even appeals to Pete Seeger. It's a far cry from the Cal Thomas of 2001. And it's worth looking at the tortuous path he has trod since then, because he's not alone.
Three days after 9-11, President Bush told Congress that "our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil."
Thomas immediately came to Bush's defense and trumpeted his leadership: the "95-pound weakling" had now become the "incredible hulk," he wrote. "He exudes strength, confidence and, to use a biblical term, righteousness." Coming from Cal Thomas, that was an imprimatur.
So every American, Thomas wrote, should support Homeland Security, Israel, and the president's War on Terror, including a "permanent" coalition army, comprising "a million ground troops," to find and eliminate any terrorist everywhere.
But on 9-11's second anniversary, Thomas was getting testy. "President Bush should stop saying the terrorists hate freedom," he wrote. "They do not think that way."
Already Thomas saw support for the war dragging. A "lack of resolve" at home and abroad was "a greater enemy than terrorism."
Ah. Were the people to blame? No: by 2005 Thomas conceded that "the Bush administration is partly responsible for declining poll numbers and the growing public disapproval of the war in Iraq."
...by 2005 [Cal] Thomas conceded that "the Bush administration is partly responsible for declining poll numbers and the growing public disapproval of the war in Iraq."
As more facts had emerged regarding the war, Bush had allowed allegations of dishonesty about the war to "fester." Unfortunately, however, many of those allegations were hard to refute, so public support sagged further.
After the disastrous 2006 elections that gave the Democrats the majority in both houses, Thomas dumped the happy-talk: "There are serious issues that must be addressed and resolved. Nice talk won't replace important philosophical differences and differing objectives."
By 2007, things had gotten even worse. "President Bush appealed for patience as the Iraq war entered its fifth year," Thomas wrote, but "the president appeared to be pleading, not leading. Where are the convictions of conscience, the soaring rhetoric, the broad vision and the dire warnings of failure?"
Maybe Bush had lost his best speechwriter, Thomas groused.
Shades of Obama's teleprompter.
The year 2007 was indeed critical. By March, it was Thomas who was pleading: "This war will not end in the next year, in another four years, or perhaps in 100 years… If stability is achieved [in Iraq] and freedom preserved, March 20, 2003, will no longer be seen as the 'beginning' of a war, but as Independence Day for a nation whose renaissance may just turn the tide of this world war in freedom's direction."
Dream on, Cal.
Thomas was trying to feed Bush some "soaring rhetoric," but reality was far distant. Finally, in May 2007, an exasperated Thomas blamed Bush's failure on "the dominant surrender wing of the Democratic Party."
In 2008, Thomas was intemperate. "This just in: Ronald Reagan is dead and he's not coming back," he wrote. (Every Republican candidate was calling himself "another Reagan" that year, you might recall — every candidate but Dr. Ron Paul, of course.)
"Today's conservatives…can't seem to break with the past and the nostalgia for the Reagan years," he quailed.
Was Thomas endorsing Ron Paul?
Not quite. In fact, Thomas lumped together Rep. Paul and other Americans who "have already made up their minds that the war was a colossal mistake" and called them "liberals, Bush-haters, [and] Barack Obama supporters (but I repeat myself)."
Yes, Cal had finally lost it. But he wasn't the only loser. After the 2008 election, his headline blared, Religious Right, R.I.P.
Yes, Bush had handed over Capitol Hill to the Democrats in 2006, and the White House to Obama two years later. The pro-life, pro-family coalition — so often ignored, so ill abused — was dead.
Thomas admired Bush's use of power, but not Obama's. No longer is he the cheerleader.
However, Thomas didn't come right out and say that Bush had killed it. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), a longtime conservative stalwart, did it for him: "Bush killed [the] GOP," he tweeted.
Today, Thomas doesn't enjoy hours off-the-record in the Oval Office. The tables have turned, and so has his prose.
An Imperial President, his headline read in January 2013: "At his news conference Monday, a petulant, threatening and confrontational President Obama spoke like an emperor or supreme ruler. All that was missing was a scepter, a crown and a robe trimmed in ermine."
Thomas admired Bush's use of power, but not Obama's. No longer is he the cheerleader.
How did it come to this? Perhaps Cal's observation from the dark days of 2006 says it best:
People who ignite religious and political flames do so to augment their own sense of power and place. It is about controlling others and acquiring political power. It is also about raising money. One can never succeed in brokering peace or the power would subside, the influence wane and the money dry up. (Sept, 26, 2006)
The road from "rid the world of evil!" to "have we learned nothing?" is a long, hard slog. And Cal still has a ways to go: his piece fails to mention the terror, exile, and death that Bush's wars have visited on Christians throughout the Middle East. Nor does he allude to the virtually unanimous opposition among Christian leaders there to Obama's proposed support of the rebels allied with Al Queda in Syria.
"When will they ever learn?" Who knows? It took Cal twelve years.
From Under the Rubble archives
From Under the Rubble is copyright © 2013
by Christopher Manion.
All rights reserved.
Christopher Manion is Director of the Campaign for Humanae Vitae™, a project of the Bellarmine Forum. He served as a staff director on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for many years. He has taught in the departments of politics, religion, and international relations at Boston University, the Catholic University of America, and Christendom College. This column is sponsored by the Bellarmine
Email Dr. Manion
See a complete biographical sketch.
To subscribe or donate to the FGF E-Package online or
send a check to:
P.O. Box 1383
Vienna, VA 22183