“Religion in World Politics,” by Umphrey Lee
April 15, 1946

“Politics,” said Henry Adams, “cannot stop to study psychology.” Sometimes, it would appear that politics cannot stop to study anything. But usually politicians can depend upon their native wit and their experience to see them through. Only when there are grave issues which cannot be settled by intuitive political sense or by the advice of party leaders are the experts called in. And if the experts are American experts with backgrounds and presuppositions peculiarly American, even this help may not be enough when the issues involve other nations and different cultures.

This is the basis for the fear of many that this country, suddenly become the most powerful in the world and thrown for the first time into the main stream of world politics, may not be prepared for the task. We have never had an overseas empire. Except for the Indians, we have not even had dangerous neighbors. Our presuppositions are those of a people who have not learned even geography the hard way—by fighting in every corner of the world. We have not had to consider at every turn the beliefs peculiar to the far corners of the earth. Yet the American mind is flexible, and if we try hard enough we can hold our own, provided always that we are aware of our limitations.

There is one field in which our national experience has given us little, if any, preparation for participation in world affairs: that is in the political aspects of organized religion. Only the most innocent imagine that Methodists, Baptists, and Catholics in this country do not at some time seek to influence political action. And only the most naive of politicians would not walk delicately between religious issues. But in a large part of the world, into whose affairs we are now thrown headlong, religious problems cannot be settled by thinking up something pleasant to do for the Catholics without offending the Methodists.

The latest indication of what may come in the future was in the recent flurry over Protestant missions in South America, an issue which our State Department seems to have handled well enough. But it is not reassuring that some of our people, who did not have any great stake on either side, were willing to revive the doctrine of cuius regio. It is this indication of the immaturity of our political thinking which is disturbing. European nations with long colonial experience are fully aware of the problems of missionary enterprises; and most chancelleries know what missionary work is and how it is related to the life of the churches. One suspects that too many of our leaders think of missions as something done for the heathen by superior people. Our present government would have been interested in the good old man in Torre Pellice, the summer headquarters of the Waldensians in the Cottian Alps, who once welcomed me with the announcement that he had been a missionary in Missouri.

Those who make the Peace after World War II ought to know that many European Protestants after World War I said that the Allies won the war and the Roman Catholic Church the Peace. Our people do not have to believe this, but they should know that other people do. It would be helpful if our political leaders knew that the future of the Balkans may depend, in part, upon the success of the Russian Church in regaining leadership in the Orthodox churches. It would help take one of the Four Freedoms out of the realm of oratory if those responsible for making and administering our foreign policy read M. Searle Bates’ new book, Religious Liberty. We could assume the appearance of national modesty by saying that in this country the churches are in politics in a different manner than in many other parts of the world. But the truth is that in many countries religion is more political than in the United States. Our secular tradition is often that of indifference, not of anticlericalism. And this very indifference is worse preparation for the role we are to play than an anti-religious attitude would be. Stalin is hardly friendly toward religion, but he seems to have a keen sense for the political significance of religion in the Balkans. Whatever a British statesman’s personal religious views, his attitude toward India will be affected by the Empire’s commitments to Moslems in the Near East. And it may be questioned whether Mr. Churchill’s backing of a Greek Archbishop as Premier in Greece was altogether because of the Archbishop’s personal ability, or even because, as suggested recently, he is regarded as “a scheming, mediaeval” prelate.

There are good people everywhere who pray for peace among all the children of God. And our social structure in these United States is not such as to encourage the throwing of any but very small stones. Nevertheless, if we are to take a constructive part in world politics our leaders cannot assume that religious questions are unimportant. They may be only annoying in some of the districts represented on Capitol Hill: in some parts of the world they are political problems which vitally affect international relations. The atomic bomb is no weapon to be placed in the hands of Innocents Abroad.

Umphrey Lee (1893–1958) became a Methodist pastor after earning a BA from Trinity University, an MA from Southern Methodist University, and a PhD from Columbia University. He established the Wesley Bible Chair at the University of Texas, and in 1923 he became the pastor of Highland Park Methodist Church on the Southern Methodist University campus, where he taught homiletics. From 1937 to 1939, he was dean of the School of Religion at Vanderbilt University before serving as president of Southern Methodist University from 1939 to 1954. He was the first Chancellor of Southern Methodist University from 1954 to 1958. Several schools are named after him.