President Bush has been trying for months to make the case for using force against Saddam Hussein, but he has won little support from leaders of American and European churches.
Yet after heavy, perhaps unprecedented, church agitation and peace appeals from the likes of the pope and archbishop of Canterbury, two prominent lay Christians have emerged to provide intellectual support for those who believe war with Iraq would be moral.
Jean Bethke Elshtain, a Protestant professor of social ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School, and Michael Novak, a Roman Catholic philosopher at the American Enterprise Institute, each opposed the Vietnam War.
But each has argued recently that a conflict with Iraq meets the demands of Christianity's "just war" doctrine the theological tests for deciding the morality of war that date back to the fifth century.
The doctrine says war must be a last resort; openly declared by proper authority; in response to unjust aggression; and that success must be probable. During warfare, it insists, the desired good ends must outweigh the destructive means and noncombatants must be protected as much as possible.
Dovish clergy have said an attack on Iraq fails various just-war tests. Dire consequences might result (so the ends don't justify the means), some say. Others argue that arms inspectors need more time or that a war must have United Nations sanction, before war becomes a reasonable last resort.
In response, Elshtain and Novak maintain that with or without the United Nations, American action against Saddam would fit the doctrine comfortably.
Novak argued in a Feb. 8 speech at the U.S. embassy to the Vatican that the impending conflict would not be "preventive war" but simply the "lawful conclusion" of the wholly justified 1991 Gulf War, enforcing the disarmament terms that Iraq accepted.
Novak also said just-war thinking must accommodate what's known as "asymmetrical warfare." Unlike warriors when the just war doctrine was devised, he said, the modern world's terrorists are not responsible to any public authority. They present a new kind of military threat they have no standing armies and strike without advance warning.
Whatever the past links between Saddam and al-Qaida, he warned, Iraq has attitudes and military means that can easily unite with terrorists' plans and personnel.
He concluded that history shows it's imprudent for public authorities, who are morally responsible for protecting the citizenry from unprovoked attack, to trust "the sanity and good will of Saddam Hussein."
Elshtain, who has a book on just wars due in April, hedged her support for attack until late last year.
Besides Novak-style arguments, she emphasizes the Christian duty to defend the innocent, not only within one's own country but elsewhere: That includes the Iraqis whom Saddam brutalizes and the neighbors he threatens. (She also assails the United States for sidestepping the 1990s genocide in Rwanda and unwillingness to risk NATO troops' lives in Kosovo that worsened the carnage.)
She also believes the United Nations' credibility is at stake. If it continues to pass resolutions and then does nothing "it strengthens the Saddam Husseins of the world."
"Not going to war can be a tragedy, just as going to war can be a tragedy," Elshtain told a Cleveland audience this month.
In the U.S. denominational debates, such views have been limited mostly to Southern Baptist Convention leaders and certain Jewish groups.
Even the National Association of Evangelicals, usually friendly toward Bush, shelved a pro-war proposal partly because it didn't want to imply any Christian-Muslim war or provoke retribution against missionaries and indigenous Christians in Muslim lands.
Arrayed on the anti-war side are the U.S. Catholic hierarchy and "mainline" Protestant and Orthodox groups in the National Council of Churches and World Council of Churches. The World Council declared last week that attacks "would be immoral, unwise, and in breach of the principles of the United Nations Charter."
Observing fellow mainline Protestants, Elshtain sees a split between clergy and laity over a conflict. Sermonizing against war exploits "a captive audience" in the pews, she complains.
Dovish clergy are failing to realistically acknowledge human sinfulness and the duty to restrain it, she maintains, while many in their congregations understand something has to be done.
Novak also champions the lay voice.
Catholics should seriously consider papal views, he believes, but he notes that Pope John Paul II's key January speech to Vatican diplomats allowed for war if waged under strict moral conditions as "the very last option" to ensure the common good.
Also, analyzing American bishops' past statements on Iraq, Novak notes that the church's universal catechism of 1992 acknowledges that public officials are responsible for judging the moral legitimacy of war.
"It's a layman's call," he says.