Being an ordained minister, I am sometimes accused of being part of an institution that causes wars, as if the accusation that religion causes wars is a valid observation that can not be questioned. Really?
My reading of history is very different.
Wars are fought for land and natural resources. Our own Civil War would not have happened without slavery. Russia would not have invaded the Crimea if it were not on the Black Sea and provided the Russian Navy with its only warm water port. Hitler would not have invaded the Soviet Union if he did not want land and oil. Without oil, the first Gulf War would not have happened, nor the second. The Mexican War, which gave us Texas, was a land grab, as were the many wars inflicted upon Native Americans.
Show me a war when land and economic resources did not play the chief role, and that would simply be an exception to a rule.
So, what is the role of religion? Twofold.
First of all, religion can be used as an ideology to stoke the fires of passion which are needed to fight. The Crusades would be a good example. Religion was used by the Church and various kings to rally the troops to invade the Middle East. In reality, the Crusades were for plunder and land. Christians even killed brown-skinned Christians in droves as they moved closer to Jerusalem, the prize of the whole fiasco.
Muslim terrorists today use their religion to justify and motivate people to murder, which takes us into the second role of religion in wars: their justification.
Vladimir Putin provides a current illustration of this. He wants to return Russia to the glories of the 19th century, a time when the Russian Orthodox Church was strong and supported the czars and their military adventures. This did not work out so well when Japan crushed Russia and its navy in 1905. A bit later, Czar Nicholas II used religion to justify the catastrophic decision to declare war on Germany along with Austria, which was the match to the gasoline that led to World War I.
The Russian Orthodox Church today provides Putin with religious cover, and certainly is no prophetic voice against the Crimean invasion.
America has similarly used religion to justify her wars. In the Civil War, both sides did this. It took a long time before the Church opposed Vietnam, at least parts of the Church. Organized religion stood inertly by through the two Gulf wars, either uncomfortably blessing them or staying silent.
The Church is often silent at a time of war because congregations are usually split by the war decision, and clergy who speak out against war risk both the ire of part of their flock and the withdrawal of money from the coffers.
My own take on war is: follow the money. Who profits? Eisenhower warned us of the military, industrial, congressional complex — that wars would be fought because they are so profitable. Hawks rattle their swords whenever war breaks out somewhere in the world, and want America to get involved somehow and increase our military budget. Corporations who build arms are smart because they spread out the manufacture of parts in as many congressional districts as possible.
Putin's aggression has perked up John McCain, Sarah Palin and the rest of the neo-cons. As Palin said at CPAC, "The only way to meet a nuke is with another nuke." Comforting.
Bob Dylan saw this clearly in the early 1960s with the best analysis of war I know of in song, "Masters of War" (1963). I will close with several verses: "Come you masters of war, you that build the big guns, you that build the death planes, you that build the bombs. You that hide behind walls, you that hide behind desks, I just want you to know I can see through your masks. ... You fasten all the triggers for the others to fire, and then you sit back and watch when the death count gets higher. And you hide in your mansion when all the young people's blood flows out of their bodies and is buried in the mud. … Well, let me ask you one question: Is your money that good? Will it buy you forgiveness?"
— By the Rev. Henry Idema, Tribune religion columnist