A Look At Previous Scholarship
The relationship between religion and war in the context of American involvement in World War II is not the most prominent or extensively documented. However, there nevertheless has been significant insight offered by historians and scholars on the subject.
Although part of my investigation calls for recognizing what broad trends American Protestantism experienced, there is another element to this topic of religion and war that goes beyond merely what kind of United States these veterans grew up and lived in on the eve of World War II. For my purposes, it is also vital to recognize how historians and scholars have considered and judged the relationship between religion and war since 1945, when World War II ended. By doing so, it becomes clear why Christianity was such an integral part of each of these veteran's identity, not to mention the fact that we can better understand what specific roles religion played in an American soldier's service or even perhaps what exactly religion had to offer them.
One historian, Ray H. Abrams (1896-1983), argued that the church leaders had to justify the righteousness of the war to reconcile churches’ national and patriotic allegiances. He notes the initial dominance and success of the voice of pacifist churches and clergy in the U.S. However, that is not to say that pacifism remained the dominant outlook of many Protestant churches throughout the war. In fact, there were indeed mixed opinions of such churches that ranged from advocating pacifism to military interventionism, especially after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Abrams notes that, then, the reality of war became quickly accepted, even if not every single church agreed with American involvement. Abrams’ argument is important because the same dilemma that plagued churches also haunted each American Protestant veteran. In order to support American involvement in World War II, veterans had to justify the conflict as moral or righteous to their faith teachings and their national and patriotic allegiances.
Reverend Dr. Charles Gregg Singer (1910-1999) was both a minister and a professor, having served as a long-time elder in the Southern Presbyterian Church and having taught at many different colleges and universities as well as Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Singer’s primary claim is that World War II was indeed justified from a Christian standpoint because the Bible sanctioned war as a means of controlling human sin among the nations, according to Evangelical Christians. He also described mixed political opinions about how to secure peace, ranging from collective security to isolationism. It is interesting that Singer perceives American involvement in the war as righteous because that actually reinforces why many American Protestant veterans felt justified in their service.
Another historian named Kelly Denton-Borhaug touches on perhaps the more psychological or sociological elements of American soldiers’ service in World War II than, say, Ray H. Abrams. This might be because Denton-Borhaug’s commentary is far removed from the war by over half a century. She has the privilege of writing from a broader perspective after more time has passed for World War II to be thought of and written about. Abrams did not have that advantage because he was writing about religion and war almost immediately after World War II. So, he simply did not have the time to dwell on and develop his commentary that Denton-Borhaug did. She describes military identity’s culture that perpetuates unit cohesion through an idea called “communal ecstasy.” She also compares religion and war by likening martyrs’ willingness to sacrifice themselves for their faith to soldiers’ willingness to sacrifice themselves for their country. Building on this concept, she even suggests that self-sacrifice could be seen as nationalistic or patriotic, offering a justification for many American Protestants’ service in the war. But what Denton-Borhaug probably most importantly contributes to my own investigation is her definition of religion. By claiming that religion is not just about doctrines or dogmas, or even faith for that matter, it is apparent that religion can also even serve the needs of individuals and society. To reiterate, religion did not use people in this specific case; rather, people used religion. So, this can help to explain why many American Protestants could comfortably and proudly serve in the war without feeling like they were compromising their Christian values.
While this online digital history certainly does not attempt to pass off solely as a scholarly contribution to theology, it is nevertheless important to define what I mean when I frequently refer to “religion”—a vague term open to myriad interpretations—throughout my investigation. Therefore, I will reference Kelly Denton-Borhaug’s multifaceted definition of religion in my analysis due to its wide applicability with the several veterans whose thoughts and experiences I examine in the ultimate dilemma of religion and war. That is, according to Denton-Borhaug:
"Functionalist definitions of religion emphasize the following: 1) religion services social functions that provide experiences of community; 2) religion provides existential functions that help people claim identity, meaning and purpose; and 3) religion makes possible transcendent functions through which people experience the numinous.”¹
Taking all of these scholars’ opinions into account, I understand that the dilemma that tore American Protestant veterans between religion and war was complex enough that they tried to resolve it in their own unique ways. Maybe they relied on their religion’s centrality to their identity, as Denton-Borhaug asserts, during the hardships of the war. Maybe they made sense of their participation in a deadly conflict by, ironically, the fact that they were men of God, as both Abrams and Singer point out. Denton-Borhaug suggests that maybe they even found a sense of meaning and purpose through salvation after bearing the war’s depravity.
¹ Kelly Denton-Borhaug, U.S. War-culture, Sacrifice, and Salvation (Oakville, CT: Equinox Pub., 2011), 129-130.