At a public forum in Newton’s Chamber of Commerce hall on August 19, Senator Jerry Moran lifted up his Mennonite credentials. He and his wife, Robba, used to attend North Oak Community Church in Hays, a congregation affiliated with the Mennonite Brethren. He referred to the competition between Bethel College and Tabor College. He acknowledged that Mennonites in his audience might not agree with his positions on military matters. But he was comfortable among Mennonites.
Moran said the pending nuclear agreement with Iran was “a terrible mistake.” He said he plans to vote against it because it offers to Iran a path to acquire nuclear weapons. Moran asked why Americans should trust a country where they shout “Death to America!” Most of the fifty-some people in the audience clapped and cheered Moran’s provocative rhetoric.
But the mood in the hall changed when Duane Friesen, retired Bible and Religion professor at Bethel College, said the agreement with Iran was a positive move forward. If Congress rejects the agreement, said Friesen, war would become much more likely. Given the involvement of five other nations and the difficulty of continuing sanctions, it is not realistic to think a better deal could be negotiated. Friesen had prepared a longer set of arguments and documentation on the issue. Moran thanked him for the spirit of his remarks and promised to read his materials.
Several Mennonites (and others) backed up Friesen’s viewpoint. Among their questions: Why do we have a double standard on nuclear weapons for Israel and Iran? Why do prominent scientists in Israel support the deal? Is it any more fair to imply that all Iranians want “Death to America,” than it would be to imply that the Westboro Baptist Church “God Hates Fags” hotheads stand for all Americans.” Moran backed away from his earlier rhetoric. He said he hadn’t meant to imply that all Iranians were so hateful.
Moran’s voting record is generally conservative. In his 2010 Republican primary campaign for the U.S. Senate, Moran ran on the extreme far-right in an attempt to outflank his conservative opponent, Todd Tiahrt. In Newton last week he appeared somewhat more moderate and reasonable. He said he supported normalization of relations with Cuba, not only because there could be a market in Cuba for Kansas goods, but also because the ending of sanctions could bring improvements to Cuban society. He did not explain why that logic works for Cuba, but not for Iran.
Duane Friesen’s encounter with Jerry Moran demonstrated the usefulness for political dialog of an ongoing local witness for peace and conflict resolution. Kansas Mennonites have kept that witness going for many years in local meetings with state and national politicians. It is especially interesting when it involves politicians who claim at least some kind of Mennonite identity.