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The Bible, war and discord

One passage plucked from the New Testament’s Epistle to the Ephesians instructs believers to “put on the full armor of God.”

An excerpt from the Old Testament’s Isaiah directs them to “open the gates that the righteous nation may enter.”

As American troops fought in Iraq in 2003, these biblical verses and others reportedly prefaced intelligence reports approved by then-Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Disclosed last week on the website of GQ magazine, the hawkish use of scripture has prompted many faithful to ask whether Americans lost their lives in Iraq defending democracy or fighting a religious crusade.

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Meanwhile, some Jewish and Christian leaders say that the biblical passages were misused -- just as moderate Muslims say Al Qaeda twisted the Koran to justify the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

“What is at issue is the possibility that the highest levels of the executive branch took biblical texts out of their proper context to cast the mission of the U.S. military in explicitly religious terms,” said Scott Alexander, director of the Catholic-Muslim Studies Program at Chicago’s Catholic Theological Union.

First reported last week by Robert Draper, author of “Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush,” dozens of biblical passages, accompanied by images of soldiers knelt in prayer or marching across the desert, adorned the covers of classified documents prepared for Rumsfeld and Bush.

Neither Bush nor Rumsfeld has commented on the GQ report.

Several members of the clergy say many of the biblical quotations used to condone war were taken out of context. Ephesians, for example, makes clear that the armor of God refers to the virtues of truth, justice and peace.

A photograph of soldiers kneeling in prayer features Isaiah 6:8: “Whom shall I send and who will go for us? Here I am, Lord. Send me.”

“As a Christian, I am deeply troubled that a verse such as Isaiah 6:8 -- a verse about a great prophet’s call to indict his own people for their infidelity . . . is being presented as a divine call for the U.S. to invade Iraq,” Alexander said.

The disclosure of the intelligence reports added to lingering concerns about the role of religion during the Bush administration. In 2001, Bush called the war on terrorism a “crusade,” sparking fears among some Muslims that the fight against terrorism was a battle against Islam.

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In 2003, Lt. Gen. William G. Boykin, then-deputy undersecretary of Defense for intelligence, compared the war against Islamic militants to a battle against Satan.

Whether Rumsfeld acted out of authentic religious motivation or, as some critics have suggested, to sell a war to an evangelical president is unclear.

The Rev. John Buchanan, pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, said Rumsfeld and his wife “were both thoughtful and intentional about their faith” when they worshiped there years ago. But he too is troubled by the revelations.

“It is a misuse of the Bible to take passages out of context and employ them to support one side against another,” Buchanan said.

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Marc Gopin, director of the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University in Arlington, Va., said history demonstrated the danger of mixing religion and violence -- even in rhetoric. He said Jews and Christians were obligated to paint a more accurate picture of what the moderate majority believes.

“It would be perfect for the Christian communities from the most conservative to the most liberal to flag this . . . and work together on a commitment to Christianity being a force for peace and reconciliation,” he said.

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mbrachear@tribune.com

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