Before proceeding, I need to establish at least minimal credentials: I’ve been studying nuclear weapons, their strategic use and ethical purpose, since I was a political science major in college. My first published work was a paper entitled “Nuclear Weapons in the Ethics of Reinhold Niebuhr” in the Summer 1985 edition of Perspectives in Religious Studies. I say this simply to establish that, on this subject, I’m not just your average opinionated Internet buffoon. I establish that to say this: the “no nukes” movement that is currently gaining steam in the mainline denominations, in some Catholic circles, and in the evangelical political left, is well intentioned, but seriously misguided.

The subject has been in the news recently because of President Obama’s non-serious talk about eliminating nuclear weapons. The president’s campaign is not serious because 1) he is not the sole arbiter of American military policy, and no Congress in the next seven years is going to permit the abolition of the American nuclear arsenal; 2) Russia and China have no intention of surrendering theirs; 3) North Korea has nukes and Iran soon will; and 4) deterrence lives. (More about this in a moment.) I suspect that the president has been talking this up as a way of bolstering his foreign policy cred with the left, at least some segments of which feel betrayed by his approach to Afghanistan. In any case, nuclear weapons are not going to disappear from the Earth in the foreseeable future, which hasn’t prevented the religious left from jumping on the bandwagon with both feet.

David Waters of the Washington Post, in an “On Faith” column Monday, wrote about this growing movement. He quotes Baptist ethics professor David Gushee: “As a follower of Christ I have long believed that nuclear weapons are one of the most atrocious exercises of human creativity ever devised.” Another Baptist, Pastor Tyler Wigg-Stevenson of Nashville, founder of the anti-nuke Two Futures Project, said this: “Who do we think we are to claim authority over life itself and the welfare of future generations? That power belongs to God alone.” And then there’s this from Catholic Archbishop Edwin O’Brien of Baltimore:

The moral end is clear: a world free of the threat of nuclear weapons. This goal should guide our efforts. Every nuclear weapons system and every nuclear weapons policy should be judged by the ultimate goal of protecting human life and dignity and the related goal of ridding the world of these weapons in a mutually verifiable way.

Waters ends his column on this note: “Blessed are the peacemakers who control nuclear weapons? Or blessed are the peacemakers who abolish them?” That’s a good pair of questions, and the answers, contrary to Archbishop O’Brien, is not nearly so certain as it would seem.

Wigg-Stevenson weighed in with a piece at “On Faith” yesterday that makes the same leap that many analyses of nuclear weapons make: the potential effects are horrendous, therefore they should be abolished. He writes:

A single nuclear terrorist attack on a major city would kill between 60,000 and 200,000 people, would contaminate 320 square miles for a generation, and cause the shutdown of the global economy, with massive suffering worldwide. One does not need religion to be horrified by such a scenario. But our Christian conscience must be doubly shocked by the affront to the sanctity of human life, stewardship of creation, and care for the poor that such an attack would constitute.

At the Two Futures Project, we seek to bring glory to God by working in his name to prevent such a scenario. And the best, nonpartisan analysis from security experts says that the only policy prescription to ensure this is to pursue urgent nuclear threat-reduction, guided by the vision of a world without nuclear weapons–a verifiable and technical possibility, and the fondest dream of President Ronald Reagan.

In response, let me be clear: no one has ever compared nuclear weapons to kittens and cupcakes. The effects of large-scale, or even small-scale, use of such weapons is too horrible to countenance. And the possibility that such weapons might fall into the hands of terrorists, or even the Iranian mullahs, is one that should give any sensible person nightmares (though it is far more likely that, no matter what Obama’s rhetoric, Iran will have nukes before the end of his term in office than that the weapons will have been abolished anywhere). That being the case, it only makes sense to work for abolition, doesn’t it? No, actually, it doesn’t (the “best, nonpartisan analysis from security experts” notwithstanding), and it doesn’t matter whether one views the issue from the standpoint of political/military considerations or ethical ones.

First, let’s deal with the practical. It may be a cliche to say that “the genie is out of the bottle,” but it’s a cliche in part because it’s true. There’s no way for humanity to “unlearn” the secrets of nuclear weaponry. That means that the potential is always going to exist that a regime may decide, no matter what the rest of the world thinks or the legal restraints in place, that it’s going to have the most powerful weapons it can build or buy, and as we’ve seen with Iran, there’s always going to be someone willing to sell the machinery and materials necessary to do so.

It’s hard to see any arms control agreement having both the universal submission and necessary enforcement to prevent this from happening–remember, Israel, India, and Pakistan never signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and North Korea renounced it just in time to reveal its own nukes, which it had been working on in secret for years, right under the nose of the UN and IAEA. The North Korean and Iranian examples in particular make it hard to see how international abolition is possible. If the last ten years have taught us anything, it’s the extraordinary difficulty of ferreting out that a state or non-state actor (think A.Q. Khan, the Pakistani scientist who helped the Norks develop their weapons) is violating international agreements with enough certainty to act, or finding the international will to take action. So the reality is that as long as nations threaten other nations (a given of human history, until sin is abolished), there will be an incentive for someone to have nukes, either to wave around as a threat or as a deterrent.

Ah, yes. Deterrence. Back in the 1980s, during the last wave of no-nukism, there was a lot of bashing of the idea of deterrence. No anti-nuclear rally could happen without some speaker pointing out that the acronym for “mutual assured destruction” is MAD. But the reality is that those who wanted the West to unilaterally lay down its nuclear weapons had no alternative. Just as Winston Churchill famously joked that “democracy is the worst form of governance ever devised, except for all the others,” so, too, with deterrence vis-a-vis the prevention of nuclear or catastrophic conventional war. It wasn’t just that our nukes prevented the Soviets from using theirs; it was that our nukes prevented the Soviets from using their overwhelming conventional advantage to overrun Europe. Nuclear weapons, or at least the possibility that they might be used, far from destroying humanity, actually prevented a significant portion of humanity from being conquered and enslaved.

Obviously, this doesn’t mean nuclear weapons have made war obsolete. They didn’t prevent the Soviets from invading Afghanistan in 1979, for example, because they knew that the U.S. wouldn’t use them to defend the Afghans. They don’t prevent terrorism, either. But that doesn’t mean that in the real world of military and political strategy, they haven’t prevented their share of carnage. Whether that makes them ethical, however, is another matter.

The popular movement on the religious left for abolition rarely bothers to make an actual argument for the immorality of nuclear weapons possession, but Wigg-Stevenson makes a stab at it in his “On Faith” piece when he writes:

For most Evangelicals, the Just War tradition provides a normative set of categories for integrating security and values–and Just War teaching flatly prohibits, among other actions, uses of force which 1) are disproportionate to the conflict, 2) do not discriminate between soldiers and non-combatant, and 3) cause more harm than good. Every conceivable use of nuclear weapons in our present context violates at least one–and in most cases all three–of these criteria.

Just war theory actually is a lot more complicated than this, involving calculations jus ad bellum (the justice of resorting to war), jus in bellum (which concerns the conduct of warfare), and jus post bellum (having to do with just actions in the aftermath). There are also more criteria than Wigg-Stevenson mentions, but my point here isn’t really to argue that using nuclear weapons is permissible under just war theory. It’s actually to point out that the real issue is possession and threat, not use.

What exercises folks like Wigg-Stevenson and Gushee is the possibility that nukes might actually be used. And that’s a perfectly legitimate concern about something that no one with any sense wants to see happen. The reality, however, is that they haven’t been used post-World War II, and an excellent case can be made that their possession by multiple powers is precisely the reason why they haven’t been used, and that continued possession by nations such as the United States and Israel is the most likely way to prevent them from being used by bad actors such as Iran and North Korea (which, remember, have shown no inclination to go along with either the moral or legal case against their having the weapons).

So the question becomes: is it ethical to possess nuclear weapons, and threaten to use them in retaliation for a massive lethal attack against one’s nation, for the purpose of deterring such an attack? I would contend that it is, for three reasons.

First, the devices themselves are, like all inanimate objects, morally neutral. They can be used for evil by humanity, or for good (as anyone who has seen the movie Armageddon knows, he said only partially tongue-in-cheek). A hammer can be used to build a house, or to break a skull. What matters is the use, and the intention of the person who possesses the object. If the intention of the possessor of nuclear weapons is to insure that they are not used, and if the possessor does not in fact use them, where is the problem? The potentiality of misuse is no more an argument to abolish nuclear weapons than it is to abolish hammers. It is simply an attempt to transfer responsibility from a moral actor (a person) to a moral non-actor (an object).

Second, one has to examine the impact that such weapons have had on modern warfare. The fact they they have been possessed by rivals means that no one has used them (it’s important to note that the only use of atom bombs was when only one country had them), if only because of fear of retaliation. At the same time, it can be persuasively argued that such weapons have also prevented the outbreak of large-scale totalistic war on the order of the world wars. Throughout the Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviet Union engaged in relatively low level proxy wars, but never came to direct blows in large part because each side feared the other would use nukes. The superpowers (as well as other nuclear states) came to believe that no short-term or regional political goal was worth risking annihilation. That doesn’t mean that other forms of modern warfare should get our imprimatur; it is to say that nuclear weapons are useful if they serve as a deterrent to large-scale conventional war that could kill millions just as surely as nukes could.

Finally, there is the matter of making threats. Ideally, of course, we would love to live in a world where no nation ever needed to threaten another in order to deter bad behavior. But threats, if intended for the purpose of stopping bad behavior (such as the use of biological weapons) are not evil in themselves. We use threats with children all the time, after all, in order to influence their behavior. If those threats are made just to satisfy our need to control, or because we enjoy inflicting emotional pain, then they are certainly wrong. But if done with the intention of molding behavior in a direction that is for the benefit of the child, we accept them as part of a panoply of tools that parents may use. So, too, with nuclear weapons as threats.

One final note, and that has to do with the theological basis for the movement. This comes under the heading of “theocrat alert,” and is exemplified by Wigg-Stevenson (Jim Wallis, too):

As Christians who believe that true peace and security comes only at the sovereign and eternal hand of God, we cannot simply take a secular utilitarian, value-less approach to security policy. (In fact, the Old Testament prophets testify to the fact that doing so is an indicator of godlessness on the domestic front.)

The reference to Old Testament prophets is telling, because of course the prophets were directing their condemnation at a theocratic state, one that consisted, however imperfectly, of the people of God, rather at a modern secular democratic republic. We can snicker at the hypocrisy of those who say on the one hand that we shouldn’t seek to “impose” Christian values on an issue such as abortion, but have no qualms about seeking to do so on the prudential matter of nuclear weaponry. But that’s not the real issue. Rather, it is as I wrote in 1985 about Niebuhr:

He saw clearly that there was a contrast between the moral standards of which nations were capable and those that were demanded by the Christian law of love. He saw that nations related on the basis of their self-interest, and because of that recognized that it was necessary to adopt ethical standards to which states could reasonably be held.

The writer of Moral Man and Immoral Society was a wise man, and had little use for Christian pacifists who thought it possible to apply the moral standards of the Kingdom of God to the kingdoms of the world. Not all “no nukes” advocates are pacifists (Wigg-Stevenson, for one, is emphatic that he is not), but whether intentionally or not, they are making the same mistake.

UPDATE: While this post is primarily about the overall approach to the subject, there is a bit of news attached. The Usual Suspects have warmly welcomed the START treaty that was signed last week as part of the administration’s nuclear weapons PR offensive. Michael Kinnamon of the National Council of Churches said, “We praise our president and President Medvedev for taking this step and we pray the U.S. Senate will express a hearty consent,” while Jim Wallis of Sojourners, writing about the treaty and the change in U.S. nuclear posture, wrote, “The decades-long struggle to first reduce and then abolish nuclear weapons achieved two major goals this week that we can celebrate.” The editors of National Review, however, point out that the treaty has some severe flaws:

Arms-controls mavens who have combed through it carefully report astonishing gaps. The treaty doesn’t identify or define — and therefore doesn’t limit — entire categories of potential strategic nuclear weapons, including rail-mobile ICBMs, ICBMs on surface ships, air-launched ICBMs, and long-range sea-launched nuclear cruise missiles. These were all covered by language in the previous START treaty; that language is missing in the new START. The Russians have openly discussed pursuing some of these now uncounted and uncontrolled weapons systems.

For decades, it’s been arms-control dogma that the practice of “MIRVing,” or putting multiple warheads on one launcher, is destabilizing. By removing the old START limits on the number of warheads per missile, while at the same time capping the number of launchers, the new treaty actually encourages MIRVing; and the Russians are moving in that direction. Also, the new treaty counts a bomber as one weapon, no matter how many warheads are loaded on it. This rule happens to suit Moscow’s needs precisely as it seeks to maintain its warhead numbers while lowering its number of launchers; indeed, the Russian press already is reporting that under the new treaty Russia actually will retain 2,100 strategic nuclear warheads — hundreds above the supposed new START limit.

The new treaty weakens — in some areas, guts — the verification procedures that existed in the prior START treaty. Once, the Obama administration insisted we needed to get a successor to START before it expired on Dec. 5, 2009, precisely to preserve its verification regime. Somewhere around the negotiating table, though, the administration lost its sense of urgency. Under the new agreement, John Bolton writes in the latest issue of National Review, we will “lose important START requirements for on-site inspections, telemetry exchanges, and production monitoring.”

If this reading of the treaty is accurate, then Kinnamon and Wallis, and the rest of the “no nukes” crowd, have a lot less to celebrate than they think.