Secretary of State Mike Pompeo preached this week at the annual conference of Christians United for Israel (CUFI). The bulk of his speech was standard Christian Zionist fare — admiration for the modern state of Israel, praise for the United States for its support of Jewish nationalism, and brash claims of divine approval — all couched in the familiar language of evangelicalism.
But Pompeo also had another subject in mind: Iran. Slipping smoothly from a broader discussion of religious liberty, Pompeo described Iran as a "noxious" theocracy, an abuser of human rights, and a terrorist enemy of Israel, the United States, and indeed Christianity itself. Though stopping short of his past advocacy of forcible regime change in Tehran, Pompeo presented his audience with Iran as an adversary that must be stopped. Bellicosity is only biblical, he seemed to suggest, stringing together half-truths about religious persecution and a wildly unjustified interpretation of scripture to push the faithful toward war.
Pompeo's critique of Iran was not so much false as deceptively incomplete. He is not wrong, for example, about the persecution Christians face in Iran and the greater Middle East. Ancient Christian communities who could trace their roots to the apostles themselves have been subject to ghastly violence, displacement, and destruction of historic sites of worship. The Iranian government does have a horrific record on human rights, including oppression of religious minorities. And Christian converts from Islam in Iran have been sentenced to death.
But Pompeo doesn't tell the whole story. He mentions the "near-extinction" of Christian communities in neighboring Iraq but ignores the fact that ousted Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein "tolerated the country's Christian minority;" that the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq led directly to the decimation of the Iraqi church; and that the pope begged the Bush administration not to invade precisely because war in Iraq would be disastrous for marginalized religious groups. This is the sort of recent history we would be wise to consider while contemplating yet another war.
Pompeo also left unmentioned the Trump administration's travel ban, which in its final and ongoing iteration includes a blanket exclusion of visitors from Iran. There is no exception for persecuted Christians.
"Pompeo's posturing about helping the victims of religious persecution would be a bit more credible if he were not part of an administration that imposed a travel ban that bars Iranians of all religious backgrounds from coming to the U.S., and it would be a little less ridiculous if his department hadn't stranded dozens of Iranian religious minorities in limbo for years," notes Daniel Larison at The American Conservative. Pompeo may talk a good talk, but this administration's "record of providing real support and assistance to victims of religious persecution is quite poor." It is hardly cynical to suggest protecting persecuted Christians may not be Pompeo's primary objective here.
Missing too is any reckoning with the equally appalling persecution of religious minorities, Christians included, by U.S. partners like Saudi Arabia. Conversion from Islam to Christianity is a capitol offense in Saudi Arabia, too, and church buildings are illegal. None of this excuses Iran's behavior in the least — but neither has it kept Pompeo from arguing in The Wall Street Journal that the "U.S.-Saudi partnership is vital." Pompeo's realpolitik defense of friendship with Saudi Arabia is supplanted by a sudden moral idealism where Iran is concerned. With Riyadh, he's all pragmatism. With Tehran, religious abuses become a case for confrontation.
The linchpin of Pompeo's CUFI treatment of Iran was the scriptural book of Esther, which in his telling is evidence that Iran has for centuries been a hotbed of anti-Semitism. "That same twisted, intolerant doctrine that fuels persecution inside Iran has also led the ayatollah and his cronies to cry out, quote, ‘death to Israel' for four decades now," Pompeo said. "This is similar to a cry that came out of Iran — then called Persia — many, many years ago. The Book of Esther teaches us about this."
No, it doesn't. As Duke Divinity professor Lauren Winner has explained, Esther is rich in themes worth exploring: "There are a lot of lessons about how power works in this story," challenging us to examine "our own displays of power in our own smaller empires, even if the empire is no bigger than ... than our own heart." And "Esther is also a story about exile," Winner adds, "about being an exiled Jew, an exiled person of faith, and what it means to live in a place that is foreign, to live in a place where you are foreign, where you and your kinsman are aliens. Esther is a book about how to live with your community in a place that is indifferent to you or hostile to you."
Esther is more than this, too — it is a story of different kinds of courage, of God working in unexpected ways, of assurance of eventual justice for the downtrodden — but what it is not is a lesson on the longstanding malfeasance of the Iranian people. Esther offers no commentary on Islam, which did not exist when it was written. It is not included in the Jewish and Christian scriptures to tell us Iran is bad. It is certainly not included to be used by a 21st-century American politician to push for U.S. military intervention.
There are many reasons to oppose a U.S. attack on Iran, which would be immoral and unnecessary, brutal for ordinary Iranians, costly for ordinary Americans, and far more difficult than its advocates admit. Add to that list Pompeo's inexcusably misleading use of the suffering of Iranian Christians and story of Esther to drum up Christian enthusiasm for war. If Esther has any relevance here, it is less what Pompeo claims than it is the story's condemnation of powerful government officials who misuse their authority.