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The events of 9/11 served as a catalyst for the neocolonial interventionist power brokers in government to advance their agenda. In the months that followed, fabrications and talking points intertwined to paint a large target on the nation of Iraq. Not three months later, George Bush identified the country, along with Iran and North Korea, as part of an “axis of evil.” Sanctions against the Iraqi people were renewed and focused. World leaders were told by Bush at the United Nations General Assembly that Saddam’s regime was a “grave and gathering danger” and failure to escalate tensions would make the UN “irrelevant.”
Amid all the (supposed) diplomacy and agitation, the flames of fear and revenge were being eagerly fanned by the media. As one commentator has said, “Propaganda is still used more as an antecedent to war; in other words, if war is the paint, then propaganda is the paint primer that makes possible the total devotion of the public to the just cause of the state in wartime.” Americans had to be sold on the idea of fighting in Iraq before politicians pressed too hard.
Days after his speech at the United Nations, Bush pushed Congress to authorize him to use military force in Iraq. A bill was introduced on October 2, 2002. A few days later, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints held its twice-yearly general conference in Salt Lake City. On Saturday afternoon, apostle Russell M. Nelson delivered an address that any faithful Christian would consider gospel truth. He drew attention to our living in the last days, full of prophesied turmoil. He referenced our mandate to follow the Prince of Peace, and noted that he taught, “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.”
He highlighted the Golden Rule: “Wherever it is found and however it is expressed, the Golden Rule encompasses the moral code of the kingdom of God. It forbids interference by one with the rights of another. It is equally binding upon nations, associations, and individuals.”
He rightly taught that the scriptures “condemn wars of aggression” and that despite conflict, “Peace is a prime priority that pleads for our pursuit.” Of diplomacy in the post-9/11 world, he said that “Resolution of present political problems will require much patience and negotiation. The process would be enhanced greatly if pursued prayerfully.” Nelson unabashedly affirmed that Jesus Christ’s teachings would bring actual and welcome peace:
These prophecies of hope could materialize if leaders and citizens of nations would apply the teachings of Jesus Christ. Ours could then be an age of unparalleled peace and progress. Barbarism of the past would be buried. War with its horrors would be relegated to the realm of maudlin memory. Aims of nations would be mutually supportive. Peacemakers could lead in the art of arbitration, give relief to the needy, and bring hope to those who fear. Of such patriots, future generations would shout praises, and our Eternal God would pass judgments of glory.
The hope of the world is the Prince of Peace—our Creator, Savior, Jehovah, and Judge. He offers us the good life, the abundant life, and eternal life. Peaceful—even prosperous—living can come to those who abide His precepts and follow His pathway to peace. This I declare to all the world.
Concluding his remarks, Elder Nelson stated that God expects us, as it states in the scriptures, to “renounce war and proclaim peace.” While objecting to aggressive war is part of the equation, it’s only a part—we should also, he said, “follow after the things which make for peace. We should be personal peacemakers.” These, Nelson says, are the true patriots. And lip service is insufficient—”we should live by the Golden Rule” (emphasis mine).
Dissent from the buildup to war being rare at the time, what happened next was unsurprising. The Associated Press issued a brief report, stating:
The Mormon church issued a strong anti-war message at its semiannual General Conference, clearly referring to current hostilities in the Middle East, advocating patience and negotiation, and urging the faithful to be peacemakers.
Some may have objected to this characterization of the remarks, but I find it to be fair and accurate. Renouncing war is necessarily “anti-war,” and Elder Nelson definitely advocated patience and negotiation, calling for peacemakers to proactively let their influence be felt. Of course, different outlets added their twists—one newspaper’s headline announced that he had “railed” against war, though it’s hard to see how a sweet old man, talking calmly and lovingly, could be perceived as railing.
The Church was quick to respond—perhaps anticipating a PR nightmare like the one that happened just five months later to the Dixie Chicks, when one of the band’s members told an audience “We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.” In that case, massive controversy erupted, boycotts ensued, sales tanked, radio stations stopped playing their music, and the band very quickly plummeted from red hot to has-been. Drowning in war propaganda, Americans were quick to demonize anybody who did not support the war. Of course, this was merely a successful implementation of a long-known strategy perhaps summed up best by Hermann Goering, one of the highest ranking Nazis who survived the war and who was well versed in propaganda. The people “can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders,” he remarked. “That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”
One day after the conference concluded—and one day after the media reports began to take off about Elder Nelson’s anti-war remarks—the Church’s PR division issued a media advisory stating that some news outlets had “misinterpreted” the address, encouraging reporters and editors to “consider the full text.” However, it’s difficult to see how a fair reading of the remarks would produce a different conclusion. He condemned wars of aggression, justified war in cases of self-defense, all the while repeatedly emphasizing that peace is possible, peace is optimal, peace is what we should all be striving for—even (and especially) during the run-up to full blown military intervention.
The Associated Press issued a follow-up report, explaining that the Church had “qualified” Nelson’s remarks and “offered support for President Bush’s policy in the Middle East” in the form of an editorial in the Church-owned Deseret News. That editorial, issued on the Wednesday following general conference, completely contradicted the substance of Elder Nelson’s address. “Saddam Hussein and the threat he represents to the United States and her allies will not go away on his own,” it read. “This time, the nation may well have to strike first.” It concluded that “Americans have known they must face Saddam again sooner or later. It appears the time has come.”
Of course, the pro-war Deseret News is not an official outlet for proclaiming the mind and will of Church leaders, but its editorial, accompanied by the Church’s back-pedaling press statement, left clear in the mind of its members—and everybody else—how Elder Nelson’s renouncement of war was to be interpreted. While certainly not privy to the behind the scenes information, let alone any potential divine inspiration there may have been to lead to this PR “spin,” I can’t help but feel that this was a missed opportunity to boldly stand on some of the most important doctrine we have.
Did Jesus back down when challenged? Charged with blasphemy—a “crime” for which capital punishment was mandated—the high priest demanded of him, “Art thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” Jesus’ response: “I am.” There was no mincing words here, nor walking back of Christ’s claims.
It may have been seen as strategically sound to try and minimize the opposition to and criticism against Elder Nelson’s talk, for fear of incurring the wrath of the citizenry, media, and political leaders—all of which, especially when combined, would likely harm missionary work at home and abroad. I am skeptical, however, in light of popular opinions currently toward same-sex marriage and the Church’s open opposition to that trend. When Church leaders want to, they are content to press an issue despite its unpopularity.
But even if strategy was involved, strategy must succumb to commandments; after saying that “if ye will not abide in my covenant ye are not worthy of me,” Jesus tells his modern-day disciples that we must, presumably as part of this covenant, “renounce war and proclaim peace.” Elder Nelson did that, and getting us to do the same was the entire point of his address.
I suppose what I’m saying is that rather than shying away from the substance of what Elder Nelson said, it would have been great if the PR department doubled down, positioning Christ’s church as the leading voice of peace amid a cacophony of conspiring warmongers in the very act of deceiving the American people to drum up support for an offensive military campaign. Truth may be treason in an empire of lies, but if we’re to follow Christ’s example, let’s boldly say it anyway, come what may.