Seventy-four years ago, Reinhold Niebuhr launched his Christianity and Crisis magazine to awaken American Protestants from pacifism, utopianism, isolationism, neutralism, and delusions about abstaining from the war that was engulfing the world. In what he described as the “first effective revolution against Christian civilization since the days of Constantine,” Britain then stood alone against Nazi-dominated Europe, while militarist Japan dominated much of Asia. Niebuhr succinctly explained the journal’s purpose:
In the presence of the crisis the editors of this journal feel that as Christian citizens the least they can do is to advocate a policy on the part of the government of the United States of giving those who fight for freedom all the aid that it is in our power as a nation to give.
Himself previously a pacifist, Niebuhr, in early 1941 as totalitarianism swirled against the shrinking community of free nations, was impatient with his formerly kindred spirits who insisted Christianity was incompatible with violence, even in defense of innocents against monstrous aggressors. He observed with great alarm:
The tragic irony of the hour is that so many of the men in America whom this revolution against Christian civilization most concerns seem to be least aware of its implications. The freedom of these men to speak and write depends upon the existence of a certain type of civilization. Yet they talk and act as if they believed that, whoever wins, religion-as-usual like business-as-usual will be the order of the day in America after the war. The fact is that if Hitler carries out his declared designs there is not going to be any religion-as-usual, at least as far as Christians are concerned.
Niebuhr was unsparing in his critique:
The choice before us is clear. Those who choose to exist like parasites on the liberties which others fight to secure for them will end by betraying the Christian ethic and the civilization which has developed out of that ethic.
And Niebuhr implored his fellow Protestant clergy, as citizens, to lead in informing their flocks of the crisis before them and the moral urgency of placing the “full resources of America at the disposal of the soldiers of freedom.” Christianity and Crisis would spend the next decade urging American Christianity to fulfill its temporal duties by thoughtfully and resolutely supporting resistance to the Axis powers and later the Soviet Bloc in defense of justice, liberty, and the witness to truth.
The challenge for Niebuhr was an American Protestantism that, after its zealous patriotic exertions during World War I, had retreated into two decades of Social Gospel somnolence. The churches, with Prohibition and later on a larger scale with the New Deal, demanded that the government assume ever greater responsibilities for domestic social justice while increasingly rejecting the state’s primary God-ordained obligation to defend and protect its people. These church voices, on behalf of then powerful Mainline Protestantism and ecumenical groups like the Federal Council of Churches, assumed that an increasingly harmonized humanity was moving toward a new epoch, through arms control treaties, the League of Nations, and enlightened attitudes when militarism, empire, balance of power, national interest, and force of arms would become irrelevant in favor of reasoned international conversation. Niebuhr, guided by Christian insights about chronically sinful human nature, knew these assumptions were not just nonsense but dangerous.
Dangerous assumptions about a peaceful world where force of arms and strategic calculation are no longer needed again pervade much of American Christianity. Much of Mainline Protestantism, which preoccupied Niebuhr, has imploded. It has been largely replaced in numbers and influence by Evangelicalism, which is traditionally more conservative theologically, well aware of the limits of human accomplishment in a fallen world, and was overwhelmingly supportive of strong U.S. leadership in the Cold War, even playing a key role in sustaining the resolve for ultimate victory over the Soviet Empire.
But there has arisen a new generation of Evangelicals who know not Joseph, who are detached from and even embarrassed by earlier Evangelical leadership that enthusiastically supported a strong U.S. foreign and military policy. Figures of the Evangelical Left, like Sojourners chief Jim Wallis, who, like many Christian romantic liberationists, supported Nicaragua’s Marxist Sandinista regime in the 1980s, were once marginal to public life. Now their perspective, which is pacifist, implicitly or explicitly rejecting all violence, even by a legitimate state, has become mainstream in American Christianity, including among Evangelicals, especially within their elite institutions.
Much of this Christian pacifism descends from the teachings of the late Mennonite thinker John Howard Yoder, whose 1968 Politics of Jesus has been called by Christianity Today one of the most influential theological works of the last century. Yoder’s work was popularized by Duke University’s Stanley Hauerwas, once hailed by Time as America’s most influential theologian. For Yoder/Hauerwas, the crucifixion of Jesus is primarily about the rejection of all violence. Followers of Yoder/Hauerwas, especially in Christian academia, loudly reject any Christian role for the military, national security, patriotism, or the nation state. They often share Hauerwas’ special animosity for America as a nation with the effrontery to proclaim universal ideals.
Most of Evangelicalism does not directly adhere to the Yoder/Hauerwas neo-Anabaptist perspective, which unlike traditional Anabaptist thought insists that all Christians must not only abstain from the state’s violence, but should also try politically to impose this pacifist perspective on the state itself. But much of elite Evangelical opinion is influenced by this thinking, reinforced by a psychological and political desire to differentiate itself from old-school Evangelical high octane patriotism. When the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) in recent years condemned U.S. post-9-11 enhanced interrogation as torture and also renounced all nuclear weapons, in contrast with its more nuanced position of the 1980s, it outsourced its statements to the pacifist-leaning Evangelical Left.
Unsurprisingly some of these same Evangelical Left voices have hailed the Iran nuclear deal. Jim Wallis has organized other religionists to support it. Richard Cizik, NAE’s former longtime Washington office chief and now head of “New Evangelicals,” has opined in Politico that a “people who worship the Prince of Peace, supporting strong diplomacy and a deal that will keep Iran from getting a nuclear weapon is the natural position for Christians to take.” Such Christian declarations for peacemaking rarely if ever explain what should happen when diplomacy fails, or even how to make it work with bad actors, absent the threat of force.
Elite Evangelicalism’s penchant for peacemaking at all costs has been accompanied by a rising ambivalence if not hostility towards Israel, for which most Evangelicals remain strong allies. This sour attitude towards Zionism is also rooted in wanting a new identity from traditional old Evangelicalism, reinforced by the Yoder/Hauerwas critique of nation states as not meriting Christian concern much less loyalty. Such attitudes, while still a minority among Evangelicals and conservative Protestants, are increasingly prevalent among young Christians, especially if schooled in Evangelical academia.
The Evangelical Left’s hostility to the political and military defense of what Niebuhr called “Christian Civilization,” with its indifference to historic Christian teaching about the divine vocation of government, is not the only threat to a constructive Christian role in global statecraft. In the aftermath of same-sex marriage and an increasingly aggressive secularism in America, some conservative Evangelicals not at all prone towards the Jim Wallis Left are themselves becoming disenchanted with traditional Evangelical enthusiasm for America as a spiritual and temporal project.
Perhaps America is now “post-Christian,” these conservative Evangelicals now wonder, unintentionally recalling the attitude if not precisely the name of Jim Wallis’ predecessor magazine to Sojourners, the Post-American. Perhaps faithful Christians no longer have a significant role in a national politics and culture perceived to be increasingly hostile to them and the Gospel. Perhaps Christians are now called to return, at least metaphorically, to their monasteries and catacombs, tending to their own flocks, awaiting divine judgment upon a sinful land.
Adding to this mix, many young conservative Evangelicals are prone to a neo-Libertarian isolationism, pessimistic that America has any major constructive role in sustaining global order. They are too young to recall the Cold War or even the Persian Gulf War and are instead shaped by the disappointments of the Iraq War. Government has failed to build a Great Society at home and likewise has failed to nation build abroad, they reason. They do not reject necessarily the state’s traditionally understood divine vocation for force but have little confidence America can wield the sword or much else competently.
All of these forces in today’s Evangelicalism and Protestantism typically fail to consider with any depth or seriousness what the world, and ultimately our nation, might become absent American political and military strength and resolve on the world stage. Who would counter al Qaeda, ISIS, Iran, North Korea, China, or Russia? Who would oppose global nuclear proliferation? Who would resist piracy and keep the sea lanes open? Who could replace the United States as hegemon over an approximately 70-year span of global peace that has witnessed unprecedented global economic growth, lengthened lifespans, increased health, eradication of epidemics and famines, and the deliverance of hundreds of millions from millennia of uninterrupted poverty?
The young and the comfortable in today’s America too often assume their security and ease are the human historical norm. They don’t know that war, genocide, tyranny, extreme poverty, and oppression are far more common to the human experience. What America, despite its countless sins, has achieved for its own people and for billions around the world directly and indirectly can only be called blessed and providential.
Are America and its civilization morally worth defending? Yes, because the alternatives are too bleak to consider. And thoughtful, public-minded Christians, who are called by their Lord to care and contribute towards justice, humanity, and the common good, cannot be indifferent to America and its central role in the world today.
Niebuhr concluded his opening editorial for Christianity and Crisis in February 1941 by sardonically observing that his pacifist and neutralist friends “really believe that there is something particularly holy in neutrality between contending forces,” which sometimes “gives them a sense of holiness from which they proclaim a ‘holy war’ against their fellow Christians.” He noted that “action against evil must be resolute and it may have to be speedy,” realizing that for Christians, our “evil is mixed with our good, and that good is mixed with the evil against which we contend.” But “this realization must be expressed, not by irresolution or inaction, but through the depth of understanding with which we act.”
Of course the challenges for Niebuhr’s Christianity and Crisis in 1941 are different from our own. We are blessed not to face the Third Reich and a militarist Japan, and the moral quandaries of alliance with the likes of an equally murderous Stalinist Soviet Union. Yet peace, prosperity, liberty, and justice are never completely secure, and defending them for ourselves, and praying they are secured for others, remains a calling for responsible, civic-minded Christians in this age and every age.
This new journal, Providence, seeks to foster Christian and specifically Evangelical conversation about our moral duties as Americans in this place and time to seek, promote, and preserve an approximate justice with liberty for as many as possible, to include above all the liberty to hear and proclaim the Gospel around the world. We admit that today’s Evangelical pacifists and isolationists are partly a reaction against past Evangelical and Protestant failure effectively, if at all, to articulate historic Christian ethical teaching about God’s purpose for nations and governments. Providence will strive to rectify that failure and to initiate an exciting new adventure in seeking to interpret where America fits in the divine constellation of an ever onrushing human history.
We hope that you will join us in this adventure!