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Can Progressives and Religious Conservatives Join Forces on Nuclear Disarmament?

An Interview with Tyler Wigg-Stevenson

SOURCE: Flickr/WNPR

Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, born-again Christian evangelical and founder of the Two Futures Project.

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In March 2009, President Barack Obama called for the eventual elimination of all nuclear weapons. Many Americans, whether they were conservatives, centrists, or liberals, understood Obama to be staking out a progressive position on nuclear disarmament.

But Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, born-again Christian evangelical and founder of the Two Futures Project, would disagree. Wigg-Stevenson understands total nuclear disarmament to be a confessional issue—that is, a movement that has evangelical faith commitment at the center—for him as an evangelical Christian and a conservative. He is not the first conservative to advocate for a world free of nuclear weapons. After all, President Ronald Reagan said more than once, “We seek the total elimination of nuclear weapons from the face of the earth.”

Wigg-Stevenson thinks it’s very possible for progressives and especially religious conservatives to work together on specific nuclear disarmament policies. The key is for progressives to understand that religious conservatives see nuclear issues from a specific faith standpoint.

Senior Fellow Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite recently interviewed Wigg-Stevenson about his commitment to eliminating nuclear weapons through his Two Futures Project and how progressives and young evangelicals can connect on this issue.

Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite: Tyler, tell me about the Two Futures Project. Why “two futures?”

Tyler Wigg-Stevenson: The Two Futures Project is based on the idea that humanity faces two futures: a world without nuclear weapons or a world ruined by them. We support the multilateral, global, irreversible, and verifiable elimination of nuclear weapons, as a biblically grounded mandate and as a contemporary security imperative.

SBT: What are your goals?

TWS: Our goal is to establish a grassroots core of Christians who are committed to the complete elimination of nuclear weapons. Having this kind of nonpartisan, morally based support is vital if we want to make genuine progress on the nuclear issue, because movement on nonproliferation and disarmament is so slow. Achieving genuine nuclear security requires continuity of goals and mission across the inevitable partisan shifts in control of the White House and Congress. That’s why a critical mass of people united behind the bold moral vision of a world free of nuclear weapons are going to be so important in advancing the interim, concrete steps that will make it real—like the START [Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty] follow-on, like the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, etc.

SBT: How’s the work going so far?

TWS: Great! After our launch this spring, I went on a speaking tour that’s given me the chance to share this message with thousands of evangelical Christians nationwide. And everywhere I go, I’m hearing over and over that people are eager to bring their faith to this issue, and to do so in a nonpartisan way. I preached at one evangelical church in a Texas county that went for McCain in 2008 by more than three to one, and people there were incredibly enthusiastic. And I think that’s because this really isn’t a bait and switch. It’s not a liberal message dressed up in conservative religious clothing. I’m making a biblically based argument that speaks directly to traditionally conservative values.

SBT: Where are you finding challenges or even roadblocks?

TWS: Some people just can’t see the way in which our global context has changed. They’re still fighting the Cold War. And so I can stand on the Bible, stand on orthodox Christian faith, and yet because I’m advocating a position that’s traditionally associated with the political left, it feels out of bounds. But that sort of cultural captivity—a strict correlation between faith and partisan politics—that’s fading. And it’s misinformed to begin with: There’s never been a more zealous nuclear abolitionist in the Oval Office than Ronald Reagan. I tell everyone to read Paul Lettow’s scrupulously researched book, Ronald Reagan and His Quest to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

SBT: How does the moral message relate to political change today?

TWS: It’s important to acknowledge that for most people, the moral argument doesn’t run the show. The first question that everyone has is, “What makes us safer?” So it’s important to lead, at least in most contexts, with the fact that nuclear weapons don’t make us safe any more—that the problems they cause are far worse than any they purport to solve. But once people realize that it’s not just a matter of keeping them away from the bad guys, it’s moral conviction that lets nontechnicians engage an otherwise really esoteric issue. It’s morality and faith—which aren’t synonyms—that makes this into a human issue, that disciplines the nonproliferation and disarmament agenda to human goals.

SBT: I’d like to ask you about how you came to do this unique kind of work. You’ve written about how you grew up in a secular and antinuclear home, and were involved in antinuclear work. Then you had a conversion experience and became a Christian. How did you end up combining your faith and antinuclear work?

TWS: A couple years after my conversion experience, I stopped doing antinuclear activism. I went to Yale Divinity School, and I spent more than a year searching for a faith community. I joined a worshiping community, received the Holy Spirit, and was sealed as a Christian. I was really out of active antinuclear stuff for six years. In 2004 I was licensed by the Baptist church to preach, and after I was ordained in 2006 I was headed for a pulpit.

SBT: How did you return to antinuclear work?

TWS: David Cortright, an old colleague in disarmament, wanted help, called me up, and said come back to the issue and help lead a multifaith coalition, Faithful Security. This organization was made up primarily of groups that were mainstays of the Nuclear Freeze movement.

These are great people, but none of them were like the people I went to church with. Since I had become formed theologically and biblically as an evangelical, I wanted to see what was possible with that community. I spent another year-and-a-half talking to evangelical leaders. It turned out a lot was possible, and a lot had changed in the nuclear climate not only since Cold War, but since 9/11.

SBT: This is a big change for religious conservatives, isn’t it? In general, theological conservatives and political conservatives have been opposed to nuclear disarmament.

TWS: True. It’s undeniable that there has been an overlap between theological and political conservatism in public engagement for evangelicals in [the] last 40 years. We have seen the rise, and then the diminishment of the Religious Right. Established religious leaders have almost all been right of center politically.

SBT: But with younger evangelicals such as yourself, is that changing?

TWS: Do you mean, are younger evangelicals changing in terms of their political disposition? What do you call someone who is fervently opposed to abortion, open to abortion reduction strategies as a smarter tactical expression of that conviction, passionate about creation care and human rights—and against nuclear weapons?

The really significant question about younger theological conservatives is “what are the landmarks where you can tell their politics?” The boundaries have been redrawn. We don’t have alignment with a one party platform. Abortion is a make-or-break issue for most younger evangelicals, it’s true. Probably a majority of younger evangelicals won’t be able to support a pro-choice candidate. On the other hand, this administration might be able to change some things with an ambitious abortion reduction agenda, however, so it’s not that clear.

SBT: What is clear?

TWS: This point is important: Where I’m coming from and from where the vast majority of people who are supporting Two Futures project, people I encounter in churches, are coming from—these are not evangelicals who have had a conversion to becoming progressives and thus they are now supporting progressive causes. Instead, there’s a point of continuity with their own faith commitments as religious conservatives, as confessional Christians.

SBT: So we can’t say they are becoming more progressive?

TWS: It’s a huge danger when we are talking about national security to label one thing progressive or another thing conservative. Everybody wants our country to be safer. We have different strategies on how to achieve that. There is a real nonpartisan consensus on eliminating nuclear weapons. But what political and religious progressives need to understand is that for these younger conservative Christians, they are getting to these positions out of their own internal faith logic.

SBT: Doesn’t a lot of that “faith logic” cut across different faith traditions?

TWS: This is a confessional Christian movement led by younger Christian evangelicals, and it occupies a very specific confessional space. It’s not a universal approach to faith. It’s an approach that is very particularly Christian, based on Christian distinctives.

This is different from a multifaith perspective. Those kinds of groups talk about and do great work to help free the world from nuclear weapons. They do this based on a shared, sacred space. Mostly, it’s the golden rule: “Don’t nuke your neighbor and your neighbor won’t nuke you.” This results in moral calls for better public policy based on this shared vision—there’s this implicit view that your own tradition is part of a larger universal.

SBT: But these younger confessional Christians don’t believe that?

TWS: What young evangelicals want to know how it relates to Jesus. There’s a particular truth claim. It’s not universal. It inhabits the particular identity of who Jesus Christ is.

SBT: Now for a political and religious progressive such as myself, who nonetheless shares your vision of a world free of nuclear weapons, how are we going to work together?

TWS: First of all, progressives need to recognize that the moral basis for the nuclear disarmament argument has often been framed by this religious universal perspective. That universal moral assumption has actually has been preventing Christian evangelicals from bringing their core selves to the table. What I’ve tried to do in the Two Futures Project is bring an explicitly confessional theology right into the center of our nuclear disarmament argument so these evangelical Christians can recognize themselves in it.

SBT: But as to the policy issues, your website stakes out many of the positions that progressives also advocate. Can we connect? And if so, where?

TWS: While there is a constellation of specifically evangelical faith commitments in our work, there is absolutely room for alliances and cooperation on policy work that can be done, for example, on nuclear nonproliferation.

One good nonpartisan step forward is H.Res. 278: the Global Security Priorities Resolution. It was put forward by two Catholic members—Republican Dan Lungren (R-CA) and Democrat Jim McGovern (D-MA). It calls for nuclear stockpile reductions on the U.S. and Russian sides similar to those presently being negotiated in the START follow-on treaty. And it calls for the resulting savings to be directed toward preventing nuclear terrorism and global child survival programs.

It’s good for security, good for kids, good fiscally—what’s not to like? And that’s why the range of endorsers includes religious groups like the U.S. Catholic Bishops and World Vision, among others, alongside top nuclear officials from the Reagan administration. This is a no-brainer that every congressperson should jump to cosponsor.

SBT: That’s a great example and very timely. So the main message I’m getting from you is, “form alliances on policy and don’t make it hard for us to come to that table because you assume we also share the same moral framework.”

TWS: Yes, that is what I’m trying to say.

SBT: Thanks very much for being so frank.

Rev. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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