President Obama’s astonishing decision to reverse course and seek congressional authorization for military action in Syria has given Americans an opportunity to think about the situation a bit more. One important consideration is the fate of Syria’s Christians. This group, which numbers in the millions, has consistently opposed outside military action against Assad. Not only do Christians deplore the suffering an American missile strike would bring, they also worry about anything that would tend to benefit Islamists in the opposition. Assad is a brutal dictator, but most Syrian Christians would rather take their chances with him than risk Islamist government. A dictator, as Samuel Tadros wrote recently, can sometimes be bought off. With the Islamists, there’s no chance.
Yet the debate taking place in the United States this week virtually ignores the impact an American campaign would have on Syria’s Christians. A couple of commentators, like Philip Jenkins and Rod Dreher, have raised the issue, as has Senator Rand Paul. But most politicians and pundits apparently don’t care to address the subject. The fate of millions of people doesn’t figure in the national conversation. Why is that?
There are two reasons. First, it’s a matter of realpolitik. A small and shrinking minority, Mideast Christians can do little to advance American interests. So the American foreign policy establishment ignores them. This is hardly new; the US declined to accept a mandate for Armenian Christians 100 years ago, and the Bush Administration seemed largely indifferent to the fate of Iraq’s Christians during the recent occupation. Besides, American foreign policy elites are quite secular and uncomfortable with religious identity. Seeing Christians as sympathetic victims doesn’t come naturally to them.
Second, Mideast Christians lack a powerful lobby in the US. American Christians could form such a lobby, of course, but they tend not to identify with their co-religionists in the Mideast. Although Christianity was born in the Middle East—in Syria, Christianity dates to biblical times –to most American Christians, Mideast Christians seem quite foreign, theologically and culturally. An Evangelical in Minnesota probably feels he has more in common culturally with a secular Jew from Tel Aviv than a Syriac Orthodox Christian from Tur Abdin. And, indeed, American Christians are much more likely to view Israelis as their proxies in the Middle East. Just yesterday, a congressman from a conservative Georgia district told constituents that he would oppose an American campaign in Syria unless he believed the Assad regime posed a threat to Israel.
Moreover—and I confess have no way to prove this, it’s just a hunch—even those American Christians who do feel an affinity for Mideast Christians might be uncomfortable lobbying for them as Christians. For some of these American Christians, it’s a matter of religious conviction: Christianity means that one should not favor one’s own. “We don’t help people because they’re Christians,” someone once told me, “but because we’re Christians.” For others, it’s a matter of civic loyalty. Some American Christians may feel it’s illegitimate to take a public policy position on the basis of a shared religious identity. These Christians might believe that, as Americans, they shouldn’t oppose a war because of the possible effect on their “favorites” in the target country. American interests should take priority.
These are complicated questions, and I probably shouldn’t address them in a short post, but here goes. In my view, neither of these concerns should discourage American Christians from speaking out on behalf of their co-religionists in Syria. From a Christian perspective, Christians do owe special duties to other Christians, at least in some circumstances. The church, St. Paul said, is one body; Christians are supposed to be in communion with each other, as well as with God. I don’t mean that charity is limited to Christians or that the church should always put Christians first; of course not. The parable of the Good Samaritan strongly suggests the contrary. But Christians surely can show special care for other Christians who are in very serious trouble. And Syria’s Christians—like Egypt’s Christians—are in very serious trouble.
As to the second concern, the vaguely Rawlsian idea that people should put aside religious commitments when they take a position on a potential military strike—well, there are many responses, but I’ll just give two. First, it’s not at all clear that a military strike, which likely will benefit Islamists in the opposition, is in America’s interest. Second, the Rawlsian objection reflects an entirely unrealistic understanding of how the world works. In a pluralistic society, people have multiple commitments–religious, ethnic, ideological, familial—that cut across national borders. Everyone knows these commitments influence people’s decisions about foreign policy. African-Americans cared deeply about US policy with respect to South African apartheid in the 1980s and care deeply about US policy in Africa today; Americans Jews care deeply about US policy toward Israel; American Muslims care deeply about US policy toward Palestine; and so on. Should Christians alone check their commitments at the door? Should they alone be embarrassed to raise the dire situation of co-religionists in other countries? Where’s the sense in that?
At this writing, it’s unclear what Congress and the President will decide about a military strike in Syria. The dire situation of Syria’s Christians should be a factor in the decision.