Christian Conscience and Nuclear Escapism

by Robert Bachelder

Mr. Bachelder, who has worked in banking, in 1987 was minister of Worcester City Missionary Society (United Church of Christ) in Worcester, Massachusetts.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, October 2, 1985 pp. 865-868. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


When defense workers ask how they can resolve the conflict between their religious principles and their participation in nuclear weapons projects, the churches need to tell them that there is no resolution. Their work is necessary but it is still immoral.

There are two typical approaches to this conflict, one coming from business and one from the churches. Unfortunately, both reflect what John Gardner, the late novelist, called a kind of fundamentalism, with its "secure closing of doors and permission not to think."

The business approach has been articulated, for example, by Edson Spencer, Honeywell’s chief executive officer, who says that government, not business, makes foreign policy. When government solicits bids on military projects, then Honeywell properly responds as a patriotic corporate citizen. This view is grounded in the argument advanced by Peter Drucker, the management theorist, that business firms should not decide public issues that are beyond their competence. Accordingly, the determination of military requirements should be made not in corporate boardrooms but in government offices by expert officials who are accountable to the public. Corporate employees working on nuclear projects, then, should not concern themselves with the morality of their work.

This argument would have some force if we presumed that government is insulated from the influence of corporate management. This is not the case, however. Writing in Science (January 27, 1984), R. Jeffrey Smith shows that the deployment of the cruise missile, for example, resulted not as much from the Soviets’ previous deployment of the SS20 as it did from commercial and political forces in the West. The cruise missile was boosted in 1972 because the administration thought it might be a good bargaining chip for the next round of arms talks. Boeing, McDonnell Douglas, General Dynamics and Lockheed won contracts to develop it. The Air Force did not like the weapon, however, and the arms control community was appalled by the difficulties it created for treaty verification.

The contractors were undeterred by Washington’s diminished enthusiasm, and proceeded to market the missiles in Europe. Hans Eberhard, who was director of the Armaments Directorate in the German Defense Ministry from 1978 to 1981, says that the "U.S. manufacturers badly wanted a European endorsement for the cruise missile. They even offered the opportunity to cooperate in production, in hopes that certain European nations would then pressure the United States to produce it in larger numbers."

There is scope for corporate conscience here no less than in issues affecting South Africa or equal opportunity. True, individual employees are unlikely to be in a position to influence corporate policy, but they should not delude themselves into believing that their work has some moral sanction from a government which serves only the public interest. Workers should have their own consciences, or else in a nuclear age they infuse with new meaning Samuel Johnson’s old saw about patriotism being the last refuge of a scoundrel.

The question is, how should the conscience of defense workers be shaped? Some church leaders take the view expressed in A Just Peace, a document published by the Office of Church In Society of the United Church of Christ: Because nuclear and biochemical weapons represent such a crime against humanity and because of the urgency of halting production of new systems, we encourage and stand in solidarity with all in our membership and outside who refuse to accept employment with any project related to nuclear and biochemical weapons and warfare" (p. 68).

Behind this statement is a conviction that nor only the use but also the development and manufacture of nuclear weapons is contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The United Church Board for World Ministries has defined guidelines for its portfolio which exclude investments in corporations that are "direct contributors to nuclear weapons research and development, the production of key nuclear components for nuclear warheads, or the management of nuclear weapons facilities owned by the United States government." The board has sold its stock in General Electric and AT&T.

In the same vein, the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, which is related to the National Council of Churches, advises corporate managers to reject contracts that involve "the research, development, production or testing of weapons capable of mass destruction." At its 1983 Vancouver Assembly the World Council of Churches adopted a report that announces: We believe that the time has come when the churches must unequivocally declare that the production and deployment as well as the use of nuclear weapons are a crime against humanity and that such activities must be condemned on ethical and theological grounds."

While defense contractors say that there is no moral or religious dilemma for their employees, church leaders say that there is a problem, but one that can be solved by refusing to participate in the development or production of nuclear weapons and technology. The churches’ position is that all nuclear weapons development and production is dangerous and must be stopped. This understanding is also the basis of the publicly supported proposal for a nuclear "freeze." If this view is questionable, however, then the churches’ blanket call for Christians to refuse to participate In nuclear projects is also questionable.

At the very least, it is an open question whether a nuclear freeze today would enhance the world’s safety. This is the view taken by the Harvard Nuclear Study Group, which issued Living with Nuclear Weapons. The group includes such dissimilar thinkers as Samuel Huntington, who comes in for criticism from the political left, and Samuel Hoffman. who writes often for the New York Review of Books. Finding their names together on a study is a bit like discovering a paper on Christianity and culture coauthored by Paul Tillich and Karl Barth.

The Harvard group makes a case for pursuing "discriminating restraints on weapons technology rather than a total freeze.’’ They would like to see some development proceed in order to allow more stable weapons to replace existing systems. They observe that a freeze in 1959 would have stopped the deployment of Polaris submarines, which would have made the 1960s less safe. A freeze in 1969. however, would have avoided the introduction of MIRV programs (multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicles) and created greater stability. Today, they say. a freeze would prevent the deployment of some destabilizing systems, but it would also prevent the development of the new, small, single warhead, land-based missiles that would be safer than the MIRVed land-based missiles which increase fears of preemptive strikes.

These writers tend to have harsher words for Caspar Weinberger of the Department of Defense than for Randall Forsberg of the freeze. In Nuclear War, Nuclear Peace, for example, Wieseltier observes that nuclear warheads are not really weapons because they have no political utility. They serve only to deter the other side from using them. He argues, then, that the administration’s earlier talk about limited or controlled nuclear war is inane, and he rejects the notion that one side can or should try to achieve nuclear superiority. Wieseltier thinks that deterrence is "the proper regulating principle for arms control."

If we accept the framework of deterrence, then the moral task of the defense worker becomes complicated. The worker cannot be advised unthinkingly to leave the job. What is the morally compelling reason for refusing to work on a project that contributes to strategic stability and makes the world safer? Workers need to form judgments about whether or not their particular projects contribute to strategic stability. They should decide on that basis whether to stay or leave.

This is an absurdly difficult thing to ask anyone to do. First there is the sheer amount of material concerning nuclear issues and strategies which must be evaluated to attain even a minimal grasp of the matter. Then there is the problem of sorting out disagreements among experts who, while sharing a general strategic outlook, may disagree about whether a particular weapons system is stabilizing. Sometimes, too, a given weapons system has both stabilizing and destabilizing features.

Nonetheless, employees of defense contractors need to do all this evaluation as well as possible, conceding that they may have judged wrongly when all is said and done. At least then the moral enterprise becomes a matter of sweat and agony instead of an automatic response. Alfred North Whitehead criticized theology for shrinking "from facing the moments of bewilderment inherent in any tentative approach to the formulation of ideas." With their gross generalizations about nuclear weaponry, the churches seem to have contracted a severe case of nuclear "theology" which conveniently shields them from the ambiguities and complexities of the nuclear weapons debate.

The process of reflection outlined here will be rejected by some for being timid and insufficiently prophetic. If one rejects the concept of deterrence, my approach must be rejected as well. My stance, then, is more consistent with current Roman Catholic teaching than with Protestant statements. To be sure, the bishops call in their pastoral letter on war and peace for "immediate, bilateral, verifiable agreements to halt the testing, production, and deployment of new nuclear weapons systems." However, they also give a qualified acceptance of the principle of deterrence.

While repudiating the notion that nuclear war in any circumstance can be a just war, the bishops say that they will tolerate for now the possession of nuclear weapons as long as serious efforts are made toward arms control. They acknowledge the dangers in their position. They concede that even their conditional acceptance of nuclear deterrence may reinforce a policy of arms buildup, and they know that historically deterrence has not "set in motion substantial processes of disarmament."

Prominent Protestants say the bishops do not go far enough. Writing in The Christian Century, Robert McAfee Brown asks readers to push even further the bishops’ implicit logic:

They argue that there is no situation in which the use of nuclear weapons could be morally permissible. But if to use such weapons is wrong, it must also be wrong to possess them, since possession tempts powerfully toward use -- whether by deliberate decision, technological accident or human error. And if it is wrong to use nuclear weapons and wrong to possess them, it must also be wrong to manufacture them, since manufacturing inevitably means possession, and possession almost inevitably means use [August 15-22, 1984].

Impeccable logic, however, can have its own kind of glibness, and it is to the bishops’ credit that they refuse to treat ethics as though it were a form of inspired mathematics which can be pushed to some tidy conclusion. Many Protestants, wrestling with the issue of abortion, understand that ethical decision-making often involves the wretched business of choosing among wrongs. The bishops approach the nuclear issue with this same kind of mental suppleness. While they write of their qualified moral acceptance of deterrence, they mean only, as Cardinal John Krol testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that they consider deterrence to be for now the lesser of competing evils. They want us to moderate our reliance on nuclear deterrence without either denying its lamentable necessity or pretending its morality. Their position satisfies neither those who reject the concept of deterrence nor those who accept the concept without blinking.

When it comes to nuclear deterrence, some Protestants do not consider subtle judgment to be a virtue. For the peace issue, fear has made a comeback in the mainline churches as a tool in the motivators’ kit. This development provides the makings of a sequel to the late Richard Hofstadter’s study of anti-intellectualism in America, a phenomenon he related to Protestant revivalism, with its exaggerated emphasis on feeling. Today, as in the 18th century, people of great passion seek to discredit those who insist on saying: Slow down; let’s think about this.

It is correct to say, as Robert McAfee Brown does, that the possession and manufacture of nuclear weapons are immoral. But if the alternatives are also immoral, as the bishops suggest, it hardly follows that Christians should say an "unequivocal no" to participation in nuclear weapons development. Brown believes that such an unequivocal stance is "risky." Granted, it carries the risks of job loss and accusations of disloyalty. These risks are significant, but they pale before an even greater risk which they reduce. This is the risk of unfettered thinking whereby the human mind, as Augustine said, is stretched and stretched until eventually it encounters something that transcends and judges it, which is Truth. We try to avoid divine judgment and the anxiety it brings by refusing to think, by permitting our prepossessions to prevent the emergence of new insights, as the late Bernard Lonergan wrote.

This is part of the appeal of unequivocal stances. Because they are unambiguous and devoid of irony and paradox, they allow us to suppose that we are righteous. The result is that on the peace issue, we come to sound like those fundamentalist churches that call people out of a sinful world to a holy place of painless. personal salvation. If, however, we resist what Flaubert called "the mania to conclude," we are bound to fathom finally that for the moral problem of deterrence, there is no sanctified ground on which to stand. We learn instead, as London’s G. R. Dunstan writes, that there is only a choice between evils and "everlasting mercy for those who, in good faith, are driven to choose"

At first, Ramsey seems directly opposed to Brown, who rejects deterrence altogether. Actually, Ramsey and Brown are closer to each other than either is to Dunstan or the bishops. Both believe that nuclear morality involves choosing between good and evil. This is what Dunstan and the bishops deny, saying that we choose only between wrongs.

The stark honesty of such a view calls to mind a response to war known as "agonized participation," which is associated with the names of Reinhold Niebuhr and Roger Shinn. and which is described by Edward Long, Jr., in his 1968 book War and Conscience in America (Westminster). This position is not to be confused with statements of just-war theory. The agonized participant believes war is never an act of justice, but that it may sometimes be necessary to prevent an even greater evil. The agonized participant accepts the necessity of war without obscuring its tragedy.

I do not think that a person can have a role in the wartime firing of a nuclear device, or even in the development or production of a destabilizing weapon, as an agonized participant. Those would be acts devoid of conscience. But workers on projects that make the world safer should develop the mind of agonized participants. Their work can be justified, but it provides no cause for patriotic self-congratulation. It is necessary, but it is still immoral. When these defense workers ask how they can resolve the conflict between their religious principles and their participation in nuclear weapons projects, the churches need to tell them that there is no resolution. As Niebuhr said, God’s forgiveness enables us to live with moral dilemmas, but it does not make our deeds righteous.

The churches must speak these things without pointing fingers, as though nuclear defense workers constitute some special, reprehensible class. Their dilemma should be felt acutely by any Christian who lives under the nuclear umbrella and enjoys the prerogatives that come from a military security bought at an awful moral price.

In "Ethics and Tragedy" (Explorations in Theology [SCM, 1979]), D. M. McKinnon recounts a story about the duke of Wellington. An admirer said to the great man: "A victory must be a supremely exhilarating and glorious experience." The duke, by then an old man, replied: A victory, Madam, is the greatest tragedy in the world, only excepting a defeat." Today, living with nuclear deterrence is the greatest tragedy in the world, only excepting what might result from its alternatives. Since there is no handy exit from this tragedy, we may be forced to learn the wisdom of another generation -- that Christian ethics is not a deus ex machina to extricate us from our predicaments. Instead, in the words of neo-orthodoxy’s most systematic thinker, ethics exists "to remind us of our confrontation with God, who is the light illuminating all actions." In a nuclear age, we confront a sorrowful God whose righteous anger boils over in the face of our folly. The miracle is that this weeping, angry God still graces us to hope and to labor for peace. But hoping and peacemaking, we must see, are very different things from indulging in one form or another of nuclear escapism.