Six WWI Lessons for US Christians

Sunday was the hundredth anniversary of the First World War’s conclusion, but American Christians took little notice. Churches in Britain gave it far more attention. Of course, Britain suffered more and longer from the war. But US churches and Christian thought were profoundly affected by WWI. Recalling that impact offers counsel for the future.

Much of US Christianity was leaning pacifist before US entry into the war. America’s greatest WWI combat hero, Alvin York, had himself been a Christian pacifist until persuaded otherwise. Pre-WWI Christian pacifism was often sentimental and inconsistent. Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan was a pacifist and resigned as President Woodrow Wilson prepared for war. But Bryan had enlisted in the Spanish-American War.

Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels was a pacifist and transported two million men across the Atlantic to the war. Explaining his support for the war, a pacifist Methodist bishop said he spelled pacifist as paciF-I-S-T so as to sock it to the kaiser. Other church prelates were similarly adaptable. Imperial Germany was sufficiently evil to justify temporarily setting aside pacifist principles.

Once America entered the war, America’s churches and Christians were supportive with gusto. The Great War was a crusade against Teutonic aggression and Germanic secularism. And victory would redemptively launch a new enlightened Christian age in which nations and men could build God’s Kingdom globally.

The Social Gospel would go universal. US prelates imagined that the overthrow of reactionary German, Austrian, Ottoman, and Russian monarchies would globalize democracy and Protestantism (perhaps even Prohibition!), overthrow Islam, and allow the Jews to return to Zion.

Such soaring utopian hopes were of course destined to be disappointed. And American Christian thought leaders after WWI abandoned their postmillennial dreams for a democratized and Protestantized world. They became dogmatic pacifists and functional isolationists who strove to build a more narrowly just society at home.

American Protestant elites, chastened by their World War I enthusiasm, compensated by opposing any war preparedness for World War II. Only Pearl Harbor dissuaded them from their pacifist delusions, and some not even then. After WWII these Protestant elites placed deep faith in the United Nations to preside over a world of peaceful human collaboration.

At every stage of this history, church thought leaders with noble intent led their flocks astray by ignoring historical Christian skepticism about utopias that wars or peaceful goodwill established. Here are six lessons US Christians should learn from WWI and its aftermath:

1. Aggression must be deterred by threat of arms, and if deterrence doesn’t work, then it should be defeated by superior force. US prelates lamented Germany’s brutal violation of Belgian neutrality, but they preferred that America loftily remain neutral in the conflict while impartially condemning violence on both sides. They repeated the same mistake on a wider scale 20 years later until Pearl Harbor made further neutrality impossible.

2. Wars might be righteous but cannot be salvific. Quickly shedding pacifism, US Protestantism embraced WWI as a crusade to exorcize the world of tyranny and aggression. They were correct to back American entrance into the Allied cause. But victory would not transform human nature. Wars, even when right and necessary, can only partly solve some problems while helping create new problems. No war can end all wars or other human evils.

3. Overthrown tyrannies may facilitate greater tyrannies. American Protestant elites saw the German, Austrian, Russian, and Ottoman imperial monarchies as obstructions to democracy and Protestantism. (German Protestantism was seen as corrupted by theological higher criticism.) But Bolshevism replaced the Romanovs. Eventually, Hitler replaced Hohenzollerns and Hapsburgs. Mideast fiefdoms and conflicts replaced the Ottomans.

4. American military power is morally imperative. WWI could not have ended when it did, much less successfully for the Allies, without America’s swift transport of two million troops across the Atlantic. This transport was historically unprecedented, thought impossible by the Germans, and possible thanks to American maritime power. Churchmen then, later, and now lament expenditure on arms. But such exertion by America is crucial for justice, peace, and stability.

5. Moral aspirations and rhetoric are important but not sufficient. US Protestant idealism, articulated by Wilson, ennobled the Great War with lofty goals that transcended narrow national interests. These goals energized the Allied cause, mobilized the American people, and swayed German and Austrian public opinion against the war. But lofty visions cannot of themselves win wars or keep the peace. A continued US alliance with democratic Europe was necessary for post-WWI Europe, just as it would be for post-WWII Europe.

6. Nations like persons are intrinsically sinful and foolish. No international policy should seek or expect global nirvana. During World War I, Protestant prelates hoped the world could be governed like a church convention. But the nations and their peoples will rage until the parousia. National interests should be leavened when possible by aspirations for plausible international collaboration. Law, order, and liberty can serve the rightful interests of all if permitted. Aggressors and tyrants will be restrained only by armed vigilance.

The pursuit of relative peace and justice in the world requires perseverance and long suffering. Many Christian elites, 100 years ago and now, think global harmony will attain through revivalist activism and warmed hearts. But the exertions required for approximate global order more resemble the long road to Golgotha than brief ecstatic spasms before the altar or sinner’s bench.

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy and co-editor of Providence.

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