Onward, Christian Pacifists

COMMENTARY Civil Society

Onward, Christian Pacifists

Apr 1st, 2003 8 min read

Former William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society

Joseph is a former William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society.

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 justice.

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 added.)

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 disappear."

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 reconciliation."

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 away."

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 U.S. engagement.

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 unforgivable."

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 required.

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 Radio.

Originally appeared in The Weekly Standard online.