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Richard Pierard

For God and Country, Ambivalently

American Christians and the military.

The amount of literature on World War II is greater than that produced on any other historical topic; long ago it surpassed that generated by the French Revolution, the U.S. Civil War, or even the Roman Empire.1

There are good reasons for this ongoing interest. World War II was by far the most traumatic event of the twentieth century, one that caused more loss of life and destruction of property than any other conflict in history, and its effects on society will continue to be felt well into the next millennium. No other war had ever affected so many people in so many places and in so many different ways. A goodly number of the participants are still alive and are telling their stories. Curiosity about it extends to their descendants; in fact, the most popular course offering in my department is one on World War II.

Furthermore, it was "the last good war." America's position seemed morally unambiguous. The Axis dictators of Italy, Germany, and Japan had without provocation assaulted their neighbors and subjected them to brutal and exploitative rule. We responded by helping the victims of aggression in Europe and Asia with material assistance and then by direct military action when the Japanese attacked our own territory. We were the good guys and they were the bad guys.

And yet, as I have argued elsewhere,2 the moral position of the United States was not as clear-cut as it seemed at first glance. We had done precious little to promote an international order that might have maintained peace, we retreated into isolation instead of taking some sort of positive action against the rising dictatorships, and we ignored the plight of Europe's Jews. We adopted an all-out war policy with the unconditional-surrender doctrine that led to the saturation bombing of German cities, the development and use of the atomic bomb, and the triumph of the equally brutal dictatorship of Stalin.

Gerald Sittser, a professor of religion and philosophy at Whitworth College, takes up a topic that historians have largely neglected, namely, the involvement of the American churches in the war. The role of religion here is extremely complicated.3 There are all sorts of byways to be explored and ramifications to be explicated, and the task requires a mature scholar who is well versed in the literature of American history and has a fair amount of familiarity with developments in other parts of the world at the time. The author has courageously ventured into a field of extraordinary complexity and whose historiography is in constant flux.

Sittser's thesis is that the churches practiced a "cautious patriotism" with regard to the conflict. Unlike World War I, into which American Christians plunged unreservedly, or Vietnam, about which the Christian community was deeply divided, World War II provoked a measured response: the churches were loyal to the endeavor but not blindly or fanatically patriotic. Religious bodies (more or less unconsciously) attached conditions to their support that grew out of a belief in the global fellowship of the church, the possibility of international peace and cooperation, the cultural significance of vital religion, and a commitment to biblical standards of justice. Although believing that America had a divine destiny and that the Allied cause was righteous, they refused to see the war as a holy crusade and repeatedly called for the spiritual revitalization of the church and nation. They tried to strike a balance between nationalism and internationalism, political realism and religious idealism, priestly concern and prophetic criticism. Throughout the war they affirmed belief in a transcendent God, an independent church, and an authoritative religion. They sought to minister to the needs of the nation, but not at the expense of their commitment to justice and peace. They saw the war as a spiritual conflict that called for a resurgence of religion, an opportunity to increase the church's influence in world affairs.

Sittser maintains that the manner in which the churches expressed their cautious patriotism varied from issue to issue and event to event. American Christians were united in their basic convictions about American democracy, freedom, and religion, and they were convinced that the transcendent God calls all nations to repent, even America. They also felt that the victory would be worth little if the peace did not strengthen the church and advance the cause of Christianity in America. The churches helped to fight the war abroad through chaplaincies and denominational programs for servicemen and civilians, and some involved themselves in the war at home for civil liberties and racial justice. They sought to mitigate the moral costs of war and alleviate human suffering, and worked hard to apply Christian principles to the postwar peace.

This in a nutshell is the book's argument, based on Sittser's examination of the contents of 39 religious periodicals (both denominational and nondenominational) published in the years 1939–45 and the yearbooks or annual meeting reports of 11 different denominations during this time. Sittser also looked at books written by theologians and church leaders, but it is difficult to tell from his bibliography just how many of these were used. This is clearly a prodigious compilation of data on what churches and their officials were saying and doing.

Some sections of the book are quite informative, particularly the treatment of the theological debate over entry into the war and the issue of theodicy—how does one reconcile the goodness of God with the badness of war? Where the book falls short is in its weak grounding in the historical literature of the conflict. Not only does Sittser lack knowledge about Europe an aspects of the war but also he has a thin understanding of complex historical problems in America.

Numerous examples could be cited. Sittser's discussion of totalitarianism reflects no awareness of the scholarly debate on this subject. Also missing is an understanding of the role that civil religion played in the war and how President Franklin D. Roosevelt used it. His treatment of the war's impact on missions should have indicated how it proved to be the springboard for a vast expansion of American missionary activity. His analysis of FDR's controversial appointment of Myron Taylor as his emissary to the Vatican shows a limited understanding of the principle of separation of church and state. Although he addresses the problem of civil rights violations, he overlooks the silencing of Fr. Charles Coughlin and the ludicrous trial of the American fascists (including fundamentalist Gerald B. Winrod) that provided the model for the postwar trials of Communists and Communist sympathizers. Also I wonder if he gives too much credence to the stances of liberal mainline church leaders. Their impact on the thinking of most American Christians was probably much less than he thinks.

Sittser has done much to advance our understanding of the churches' role in the war. We are indebted to him for a great deal of information and useful insights on the matter. He has called attention to the ambiguities in the churches' positions and the divisions in their ranks, even as they sought to support the war with a cautious patriotism. Nevertheless, due to the book's omissions and inadequate treatment of some aspects of the war effort, the definitive work on the role of religion and the churches in World War II remains to be written.

Anne Loveland's study of the ambiguous relationship between American evangelicals and the military is a more solid work. A professor of history at Louisiana State University and a well-published scholar in the field of southern history, she brings a wealth of insight and understanding to her topic. For this book, Loveland made use of the rich archival holdings of the U.S. Army Military History Institute; she is extraordinarily familiar with the scholarly and popular literature of American evangelicalism, and she interviewed several of the principal ecclesiastical and military figures who appear in her narrative. She has a sensitivity to evangelical beliefs and concerns and handles these with a refreshing objectivity.

The narrative opens with the American entrance into World War II and the founding of the National Association of Evangelicals. The latter event served as a benchmark because a major reason behind its formation was to provide a chaplain-endorsing agency that would lessen the government's reliance on both the theologically liberal Federal Council of Churches and the Roman Catholics. The early years of evangelicals' relations with the military were somewhat rocky; the evangelicals were defensive with regard to the mainline churches, opposed universal military training schemes, and expressed misgivings about "moral laxity" in the military, especially alcohol consumption, sexual immorality, and venereal diseases.

Nevertheless, evangelicals did see missionary opportunities in the military and initiated a wide range of endeavors to communicate the gospel to service personnel. And with the onset of the Cold War, their vigorous anticommunism enabled them to gain favor with the military authorities. During the Eisenhower years, evangelicals established a significant presence in Washington, which carried over into the military through the increasing number of evangelical chaplains, their influence in shaping the Character Guidance program, and the actions of outspoken figures like army Gen. William K. Harrison and high-level Pentagon official John C. Broger.

The missionary efforts of evangelicals in the armed services gained momentum in the 1960s. Contributing to this was the work of the Officers Christian Union and the Navigators. At the same time, the overwhelming support evangelicals gave to the Vietnam War stood in stark contrast to the critical stance taken by many in the mainline clergy. Those evangelicals who did question the war, such as Robert Clouse and Robert Linder and the people clustered around the Sojourners Community and Evangelicals for Social Action, tended to be dismissed as misguided youths or, even worse, as "liberals." In the meantime, evangelicals' ideological sympathy for U.S. policy in Vietnam endeared them to the services and enabled many of them to rise to high ranks. Among these were two army chiefs of staff, Harold K. Johnson and John A. Wickham, Jr., a commander of the Continental Army Command.

Although the emergence of the New Christian Right in 1979–80 bound the evangelicals and military closer to gether than ever, the ties began to unravel over the military's determination to promote religious pluralism. For some years, evangelicals were able to hold their sectarian beliefs and denominational loyalties in a kind of creative tension with the chaplaincies' program of cooperative pluralism. Part of the reason was that evangelical chaplains had be ome more theologically inclusive or at least open-minded, but mainly this modus vivendi was the product of a system that encouraged both denominational loyalty and cooperative pluralism. Chaplains themselves agreed to operate under a "no-proselytizing rule," but other military evangelicals were not prepared to abandon the Great Commission's mandate to bear witness to the gospel of Christ.

The issue that finally led to the open break between evangelicals and the military leadership was that of homosexuals in the armed forces. Evangelicals fought tooth and nail against lifting the ban on practicing homosexuals. Their zeal and use of pressure tactics were crucial in forcing the leadership to back away from a policy of full acceptance of homosexual service persons.

Loveland has covered the topic well; I can think of only two noteworthy actions by evangelicals that she overlooked. One is the GI Gospel Hours, a grassroots form of evangelistic effort on the Youth for Christ model that lay servicemen initiated in the Philippines in the last year of the war and replicated elsewhere in the postwar period.4 The other is the air force manual scandal in 1960. A training manual that alleged Communist influence in the American ecumenical movement was withdrawn following a public outcry. It turned out that the author had used material provided by Billy James Hargis, a prominent evangelical anticommunist crusader of the time.

What I do not understand is the manner in which the book abruptly ends—with no conclusion or summary. This is unfortunate, because a frank assessment of the relationship's significance and long-term impact on evangelicalism would have added to the book's merit.

In spite of the criticisms I have offered, both books remind us that American Christians and their churches have played vital parts in our military history. No longer may scholars overlook or ignore their importance.

Richard V. Pierard is professor of history at Indiana State University. A coauthor of Two Kingdoms: The Church and Culture Through the Ages (Moody), his most recent book is The Revolution of the Candles: Christians in the Revolution of the German Democratic Republic, with Joerg Swoboda (Mercer Univ. Press).

1. This fact is excellently illustrated by the two-volume annotated bibliographical work edited by Loyd E. Lee, Handbook of the Literature and Research of World War Two, recently published by Greenwood Press. Both Prof. Gerald Sittser (whose book is one of those here under review) and I contributed to this work, which discusses literally thousands of titles on all aspects of the struggle.

2. See my essay on World War II in America's Wars: Christian Perspectives, edited by Ronald A. Wells (Mercer Univ. Press, 1992).

3. See my entry on World War II in the Dictionary of Christianity in America (InterVarsity, 1990).

4. I spell out this development in an essay in Earthen Vessels, edited by Wilbur Shenk and Joel Carpenter (Eerdmans, 1990).

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