April 1, 2003
By Joseph Loconte
Even with the start of the war to unseat Saddam
Hussein, religious leaders continue to oppose the use of force as
unnecessary and unjust. Bob Edgar, general secretary of the
National Council of Churches, laments the "failures of heart, mind
and will that led to this war." The Church World Service, an
association of mostly Protestant churches and relief agencies, sees
only "horrendous humanitarian consequences" ahead.
The criticism carries a familiar ring. Liberal Protestants led
the peace movement just prior to World War II--and sustained it
even after the German blitzkrieg in Europe, when all rational hope
of negotiations had collapsed. Finding endless reasons to oppose a
military response, they became in effect apologists for Nazi
aggression. And yet, their voices move among us still, animating
marches, sermons, and proclamations. They almost make us forget
that most of the churchmen of that earlier generation finally
discarded their "sentimental illusions" about taming a tyrant.
Indeed, the most grievous flaw of the 1930s peace movement was
its blindness to the gulf separating totalitarian regimes from
Western democracies. War critics assumed the European conflict was
merely a collision of selfish national interests. From 1938 to
1941, American Protestant groups issued no less than 50 statements
about how to achieve a just and durable peace. But barely a handful
argued that the defeat of Nazism was essential to international
John Haynes Holmes, a Unitarian minister in New York, decried
the "fundamentally immoral clash of imperialisms" at work again in
Europe. "If America goes into the war," he wrote in December 1940,
"it will not be for idealistic reasons but to serve her own
imperialistic interests." In a statement urging U.S. neutrality,
the Methodist General Conference declared that "the mood of either
victor or vanquished in war cannot aid peace."
Many Protestant ministers, in fact, saw little difference
between the German Reich and Anglo-American democracy; they
indulged in the same self-loathing critique that energizes many
protesters now. "If evil is today rampant, this has a cause,"
explained the Federal Council of Churches in a 1940 statement.
"Through our action or non-action we exerted a profound influence
on the course of world events. That course has generated widespread
unrest, great violence and immense disaster." Rev. Holmes, also
head of the executive committee of the American Civil Liberties
Union, echoed many ministers when he called Hitler "the veritable
incarnation of our nationalistic, capitalistic and militaristic
era." A German victory, he said, should be viewed as "the
punishment for our transgressions."
Albert Palmer, a leader in the Congregational Christian
Churches, rejected condemnation of Hitler as "short-circuited,
adolescent hatred of individual leaders." Terrible as the war in
France had been, he reasoned in June 1940, "would not the Allies
have done much the same thing in Germany if they had got there
first?" Charles Clayton Morrison, editor of the influential
Christian Century magazine, likewise saw no important distinction
between the warring factions. "It is not a war to preserve
civilization!" he exclaimed. "It is the war itself that is
destroying civilization--destroying it increasingly with each day
that the war lasts, and destroying it definitively if it lasts to
the point of victory, no matter which side wins." (Emphasis
This exercise in moral equivalency continued even after the Nazi
war machine had rumbled through Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland,
Denmark, Norway, Holland, and Belgium. It continued after the fall
of France and the massive bombing of London. It continued even as
the brutal realities of life under Nazi rule were laid bare.
War critics fixated on the political conditions that helped
justify German adventurism. Methodist minister Ernest Fremont
Tittle, for example, speculated that Nazi aggression "may be
provoked by bitter belief . . . that there is now no peaceful way
of solving a desperate economic problem." As a result, Protestant
intellectuals produced a series of utterly unrealistic peace
proposals. The editors of Christian Century called repeatedly for a
peace conference to establish a "political and economic framework
in which the tensions over these pre-war issues would
Ministers kept up their appeals for peace talks and U.S.
neutrality until the moment America entered the war. "We see
clearly that a war for democracy is a contradiction in terms, that
war itself is democracy's chief enemy," said Baptist luminary Harry
Emerson Fosdick of the Park Avenue Baptist Church (now Riverside
Church) in New York City. Rev. Tittle, who organized the peace
movement of the Methodist Church, was unyielding. "It would not, in
my judgment, be an act of insanity to seek an official statement of
peace aims" from Germany, he wrote in February 1941, but rather "an
act of high statesmanship." Pacifism as a national strategy, he
added, "would pursue a policy not of appeasement but of
All this after Hitler had broken every promise to European
leaders about his territorial ambitions, subjugated or murdered
entire populations, and constructed ghettos for Jews across Europe.
There was, in fact, little mention of Nazi persecution of the Jews
amid this antiwar rhetoric--despite widespread reporting of the
facts in both the religious and mainstream press.
Stephen Wise, president of the World Jewish Congress, was one of
the first religious figures to see the larger implications of
Hitler's hatreds. "Jews may yet come to understand that their
position in the world is imperiled as never before in history," he
wrote in 1938. "The democracies may yet conclude that they will
either stay the power of Nazism and Fascism or be destroyed." Most
Christian leaders, however, stubbornly resisted this conclusion.
They failed to judge Hitler's threat to civilization by the vicious
nature of his anti-Semitism--just as today's war opponents downplay
Saddam's human-rights abuses. By viewing Hitler's war aims in
isolation from his regime, they persuaded themselves he could be
negotiated with or, at worst, contained.
The Christian Century, for example, suggested that massive peace
movements outside Germany would soften the Third Reich. "The
internal effects upon the populations of even dictator countries
would surely weaken their military morale as they contemplated a
prospective world order in which the real causes of the war . . .
would at least be on the way to being removed." Albert Palmer,
president of Chicago Theological Seminary, admitted that world
domination by the Nazis would likely follow an invasion of
Britain--yet remained untroubled by the prospect. "Can military
force do much against soul force which folds its arms and bides its
day?" he asked. "Without military opposition the Hitlers wither
Christian forgiveness, these men argued, would provide the
solvent. "Forgiveness heals wounds and prevents new ones from being
made," wrote Palmer, who liked to quote from the Sermon on the
Mount. "If your enemy hunger, feed him--and understand him. Love
your enemies and do them good." Like their counterparts today,
religious liberals of the 1930s assumed the Prince of Peace was on
their side. The Spirit of Jesus, they intoned, could never sanction
the violence of war. "The Son of God . . . resists evil but never
with its own weapons," wrote Rev. Tittle. "He resists it with truth
and love even unto death." Or as John Haynes Holmes asked
rhetorically: "Can anyone read Jesus' gospel, and study his life in
fulfillment of that gospel, without seeing that love is a weapon
more potent than the sword?"
SUCH PIETY in the cause of neutrality angered a growing company
of Protestant thinkers, known as the "Christian realists."
Chastened by the devastation of World War I, most of them had vowed
to oppose war whatever the circumstances. But they hadn't reckoned
on a Hitler. "Before the events that followed the invasion of
Belgium and Holland I was living in a world of illusion," admitted
John Bennett, professor of theology at the Pacific School of
Religion at Berkeley. The defeat of France, he said, "opened my
eyes to the fact that the alternative to successful resistance to
Germany is the extension of the darkest political tyranny
imaginable over the whole of Europe." Calling pleas for negotiation
"a euphemism for surrender," Bennett became a tireless agitator for
No religious leader attacked the false promises of the peace
movement more bitterly than Henry Pitney Van Dusen, professor at
Union Theological Seminary. Van Dusen noted that a peace initiative
by the Christian Century in May 1940 would summon officials from 18
"neutral" nations to Rome--except that 14 of the 18 were already
bound to either side in the struggle, making diplomatic action
impossible. Two of the remaining states had just been defeated and
reduced to servitude by the Axis powers, while the proposed host
city was a center of fascist aggression. "The proposal has less
meaning than Alice's Wonderland, for the latter had at least
symbolic reference to reality," Van Dusen wrote. "In any Christian,
escapism is always pitiable. In one charged with influence over the
views and decisions of others in days like these, it is
Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr had announced his opposition to war
in 1923. "I am done with this business," he said. Ten years later
he upbraided Winston Churchill for his "unyielding imperial
ambition." But by the Munich Agreement of 1938, which delivered
Czechoslovakia into Nazi hands, Niebuhr reversed course. He emerged
as the most forceful advocate for all-out war. A socialist critic
of democracy, Niebuhr nevertheless scorned those who obsessed over
America's shortcomings to rationalize German militarism. "It is
sheer moral perversity," he said, "to equate the inconsistencies of
a democratic civilization with the brutalities which modern
tyrannical States practice." He finally broke with the left over
its "moralistic illusions" about restraining fascism. Christian
forgiveness by itself would not stop this gathering storm, he
argued; a deeper view of Christianity's confrontation with evil was
Niebuhr's deeper view never ignored political and economic
injustice. Yet he insisted that the origins of German aggression
couldn't be understood apart from the problem of individual sin.
For Niebuhr, sin involved both the corruption of conscience and the
existence of the demonic. Hence Hitler's fury: It was fed by a
pagan religion of self-glorification. Niebuhr's stubborn belief in
the influence of evil in the human heart makes the contemporary
search for terrorism's "root causes" look badly misguided.
"Nazi tyranny never could have reached such proportions as to be
able to place the whole of Europe under its ban, if sentimental
illusions about the character of the evil which Europe was facing
had not been combined with less noble motives for tolerating Nazi
aggression," Niebuhr wrote. Failure to resist this tyranny, he
warned, meant assisting in its triumph--and in a defeat for the
cause of Christ. "This form of pacifism is not only heretical when
judged by the standards of the total gospel. It is equally
heretical when judged by the facts of human existence."
In May 1940, the Christian realists issued a manifesto called
"America's Responsibility in the Present Crisis." Coming more than
18 months before the United States would enter the war, it ranks as
one of the period's most clear-eyed assessments of the fascist
threat. "A decisive German victory, now an ominous possibility,
would menace not only democratic government but the most elemental
securities and liberties for the peoples of the whole of Western
Europe," the manifesto began. The signers admitted the ambiguities
of a postwar world and the challenge of preserving peace and
security. Nevertheless, they called halting Germany's aggression a
prerequisite to world order. "When men or nations must choose
between two evils, the choice of the lesser evil becomes Christian
duty," they wrote. "That is the alternative confronting the
American people now."
Neither President Bush nor Britain's Tony Blair is a theologian,
but both possess enough moral realism to measure the evil of Saddam
Hussein. "One reason the U.N. was founded after the Second World
War," Bush said in announcing his ultimatum to Saddam, "was to
confront aggressive dictators actively and early, before they can
attack the innocent and destroy the peace." In his speech before
the House of Commons, Blair lamented that the world must "learn the
lesson all over again that weakness in the face of a threat from a
tyrant is the surest way not to peace but to war." That sounds a
lot like the warning by the Christian realists of an earlier era.
"This is the hour when democracy must justify itself by capacity
for effective decision, or risk destruction or disintegration,"
they cautioned in their 1940 manifesto. "Europe is dotted with the
ruins of right decisions taken too late."
-Joseph Loconte is the
William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society at the
Heritage Foundation and a regular commentator for National Public
Originally appeared in
The Weekly Standard online.
Even with the start of the war to unseat Saddam Hussein, religious leaders continue to oppose the use of force as unnecessary and unjust. Bob Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, laments the "failures of heart, mind and will that led to this war." The Church World Service, an association of mostly Protestant churches and relief agencies, sees only "horrendous humanitarian consequences" ahead.
William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society
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