In a speech last week about the recent terrorist attack in Manchester, England, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, “Every priest, every reverend in every church, every rabbi in every temple, every imam in every mosque must condemn the souls of those who carried out these attacks, … and must condemn the soul of any who would consider carrying out such attacks in the future.”

The government orders clergy to condemn people’s souls?

“Condemn the Soul” of a Person vs. “Condemn the Person”

It makes sense, of course, to ask everyone—including religious leaders—to condemn the actions of the people who carried out such an attack.  And it makes sense to condemn and discourage future terrorism.

Asking clergy to “condemn the souls” of people, though, is a strange and unusual ask.

“Condemn the soul” of a person has a particular meaning to me.  It is not the same as “condemn the person,” which I usually think of as condemning actions or punishing the person.

I think of “condemning the soul” as consigning a person’s soul—the supernatural aspect of an individual or the person themself—to supernatural punishment or banishment, like hell, Sheol, annihilation, etc.

I also think of “condemn the soul” as a decision only God can make, one that is not within the power of any human.

A Strange Message from Secretary Tillerson

Thus, it seemed bizarre for Secretary Tillerson to ask clergy to condemn the souls of people, even those involved in the Manchester attack.

It was also strange for him to say what clergy “must” do.  In context, he probably intended to express an urgency to what he thinks they “should” do, rather than intending to order them to action—the use of rhetorical devices is to be expected.  The “must” part did not bother me as much as the “condemn souls” part for that reason.

Nevertheless, a statement by the Secretary of State, a position not traditionally associated with glib politics, about what others “must” do calls for at least a pause to evaluate what kind of mandate it might be.  When it is what clergy must do, First Amendment concerns leap out.

His ask that people’s souls be condemned was weird, regardless.

“Soul” sometimes refers to a person, of course.  “Thirty souls were lost when the ship went down” usually means that thirty people died, not that souls were lost in the religious sense.

Secretary Tillerson’s use of “soul” did not imply “person.”  He said “condemn the souls of those who carried out these attacks.”  It would not make sense to say “condemn the persons of persons.”

He referred to religious leaders and used the word “soul” in connection with what they should—“must”!—do.  This invokes a religious connotation.

What Else Could He Have Meant?  Was it Just Bad Phrasing?

Of course, many religious leaders teach people that God will condemn their souls if they do not follow God’s will.

Secretary Tillerson also said, “ISIS’s decision to target a concert full of children shows their intentions are not authored by God. ISIS worships death. In our mission to defeat ISIS, we are grateful for the help of people of all faiths and especially the many Muslim-majority countries who have joined us to win this fight.”

Obviously, with the extremist teachings of ISIS relative to Islam, there is tremendous concern about some Muslim leaders teaching that terrorism is God’s will.

He was likely asking clergy to teach that terrorism is against God’s will and that God will punish those who commit such acts.  The former seems straightforward enough—teach against committing murder, acts of terror, etc., for example—but the latter is more complicated.

God Can Forgive Any Sin

Even terrorists can be forgiven of their sins and saved via belief in Jesus (see John 3:16).  God, in his grace, will forgive any and all sin through Jesus, even the worst possible ones.

I am not familiar with Islam’s view on clergy condemning souls.  Various Muslim leaders have refused to participate in terrorists’ burials and funeral prayers (the Janza prayer), though, including for the Manchester suicide-bomber, as reported by The Atlantic yesterday.  The Atlantic quotes Caner Dagli, a professor of religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross, who explains that “The Janaza prayer is not a special condition for the afterlife.  It’s not like a sacrament that’s necessary for salvation, for example. Muslims believe that even perpetrators of heinous sins might be forgiven by God.”

Asking clergy to teach that God will punish sin like murder is probably in line with most of their teaching.  But there ought to be more to the story from clergy, such as the availability of God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness, even to the worst of sinners.  Even to terrorists.

Clergy seek to save souls, not condemn them.

A Job Opening at the State Department?

There is a lot to like about Secretary Tillerson’s speech.  It was sincere, direct, and encouraging to the people of England.  It also sent a clear message to terrorists that the U.S. will oppose them at every step.  It expressed appreciation to Muslim-majority countries for their efforts and recognized the grief of the victims’ families.

The lengthy line from Secretary Tillerson’s speech that I quoted at the outset of this article was a center-piece of the speech, however, as a religious call to action.

Jerusalem-based historian and theologian Robert Smith argues, “[i]t is neither the US government’s role nor prerogative to provide theological interpretation or to instruct religious leaders on the content of their messages.”

My take is that it is fine for the Secretary of State to request, in a non-coercive way, that clergy remind their congregants that God’s will does not include murder or terrorism.

Insisting that clergy “must” do so or making a far-afield statement about condemning people’s souls is not fine.

In any event, as Dr. Smith put it, “[i]f you are our nation’s top diplomat, representing our country’s values in the midst of religiously charged conflict, this is important to get right.”

Secretary Tillerson needs someone in the State Department who has religious sensitivity to provide feedback to him on religious aspects of his speeches.

Otherwise, he will end up again telling clergy what they must do and again saying things like condemn people’s souls.

Unless he really meant it ….








(The picture is Secretary Tillerson’s official portrait.  Source:  U.S. Department of State, used by permission.)

Sources and Notes

Transcript and video of the speech and press conference:

The Atlantic article:

Robert Smith, who I had the honor of sitting beside at dinner a few months ago in Jerusalem, was the first to publish on the religious nature of the speech (as far as I could find):

I am appreciative of those in a chat group that discussed the issue with me–

I could not find that any of the press picked up on this issue, which is surprising.