A Righteous War
Many American Protestant veterans used their Christian identities to justify their participation in World War II, an event that one would expect to be sinful to Christians by the very nature of Biblical commandment. Historian Ray H. Abrams says:
“When groups of Christians believe that their country is fighting for its life, the attempt by force of arms to preserve its institutions becomes at least a ‘righteous’ cause. […] Yet between wars many of these same groups of believers in the Prince of Peace have declared that for them war is a colossal sin.”¹
To say that there was an uncomfortable tension for American Protestantism between Biblical proscription of killing and World War II would be an understatement. It is that very tension that is precisely what I mean when I talk about an “ultimate dilemma” that these Protestant veterans faced when fighting for the U.S.
Abrams certainly points out the dichotomy between the benevolence of religion and the malevolence of war. But his analysis does not settle on such a black and white outlook. In fact, he says that one major way that was accomplished was by accommodating the narrative of the war to fit the framework of Christian morality. True, pacifism was indeed a leading voice among American Protestant churches throughout the early years of the war before the U.S. joined. For instance, Dr. George H. Buttrick—President of the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America—said in September 1939, “We must be neutral from high and sacrificial motives—not for physical safety … because we know that war is futile and because we are eager through reconciliation to build a kindlier world.”² However, calls for peace and neutrality like this soon became obsolete after the Japanese attacked the U.S. at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, galvanizing many Americans, including Protestants, to support fully joining the war effort. As a result, pro-interventionist sentiments came to predominantly define American Protestantism’s stance on the war. Abrams further explains how World War II could have been readjusted to fit a Christian moral framework:
“Though war is recognized as a tragedy, fighting to preserve a Christian civilization against the ‘paganism’ of the Axis is essentially waging war to defeat the enemies of Christ. When it became apparent that World War II was a fight to the finish, not many of even the pacifists could honestly say that it made no difference to them which side won.”³
If the war was suddenly about defending Christian—or at least American Protestant—hegemony, then American Protestantism could actually regard World War II as a righteous cause. However, that did not necessarily mean that pro-interventionist clergy had to sell the war to their parishioners as explicitly protecting American Protestantism. It was simply implied by selling the war as conquering a threat to the ideals of American hegemony—that is, freedom, liberty, democracy, and Christianity. However, such a narrative was still problematic, as Reverend Dr. Charles Gregg Singer explains:
“The difficulty for many evangelicals would not have been so great if Russia had not been in a strange alliance with the West against Hitler after June, 1941. Evangelicals had no doubts that the Bible sanctioned war as a proper method for controlling human sin among the nations, but they did have doubts about the character of World War II when Soviet Russia became an ally of the West.”⁴
To Singer, the narrative of World War II posing a threat to American Protestantism through the tyranny, oppression, and “paganism” of the Axis Powers threatening the U.S. was not completely plausible. The major fallacy in such a narrative was the fact that the Soviet Union—which was as tyrannical, oppressive, and “pagan” as the Axis Powers—was allied with the U.S. So, unfortunately Protestant leaders could not completely sell World War II as a fight against non-Christian despots. However, the key to the ultimate dilemma between the peace of faith and the violence of war is that it truly was never resolved. World War II was indeed a massive quandary for American Protestants because while faith was vital to them, they could not simply ignore the Axis threat against their country.
For example, as established prior, Reverend Owen Edwards was clearly a devout Christian. Although he believed in the sinfulness of war, that did not stop him from proudly serving his country.
As shown in the first clip from an interview with him, Edwards concedes that war is undoubtedly sinful and not of God’s commandments or will. However, that does not dissuade him of the reality that sometimes war is necessary despite the pain it brings—for example, for the U.S. after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. Edwards may have interpreted his duty to serve the U.S. in World War II as a chance to protect both his country and himself so that the prospect of his American Christianity could survive.
But even with the occasional disturbing necessity of war comes a Christian attitude of waging it. For instance, Edwards says that war must come with God’s law of love and that Christian soldiers ought to love their enemies and others who despitefully use them. So, Abrams’ suggestion that American Protestants supported the war effort simply to protect their institutions and lifestyles holds true as Edwards simply tried to simultaneously obey God’s command of His law of love and keep up with mankind’s demands, that is his country’s call for war.
Edwards’ inclusion of God’s law of love may largely come from his background as a reverend, distinguishing him because perhaps he had more time to consider and care about his Christian identity’s influence on his outlook towards war. However, his acknowledgement of the necessity of war is far more common among American Protestant veterans. For example, Dr. Paul Sears served in the U.S. Army in the European Theatre, even having been taken as a prisoner of war in Germany. While Dr. Sears was brought up a Methodist, he did not have the education or focus that perhaps granted Edwards’ at least a layer of compassion in his attitude towards war.
As seen in the clip from an interview with Dr. Sears, he believed that fighting was necessary in the face of danger. According to Abrams, such a cold but practical sentiment simply meant that fighting was a righteous necessity for the sake of survival. Dr. Sears says in his own words that he had to fight the enemy to protect himself: “Well, in war you either kill or be killed if you’re in combat. You can’t have any other philosophy.”⁵ Although he does not explicitly say it, that objective of self-protection could mean something more. For instance, beyond simply protecting himself, his service meant protecting his country, his religious background, and his way of life.
Other veterans shared the same type of “kill-or-be-killed” philosophy as Dr. Sears.
Charles Newman served in the U.S. Army as a medic in the Pacific Theatre. A self-considered Evangelical Christian, he was always religious. In understanding World War II, sometimes veterans like Newman had a more difficult time remedying the contradictions inherent in the conflict. War created situations that challenged even the most devout believers, and sometimes they simultaneously held competing beliefs. However, emerging out of these difficult situations was the central tenet that their involvement—out of all the other options—was the right choice.
Prentice Ball served in the U.S. Navy as a medic at bases around the U.S. and Cuba. Having grown up in a Christian household, he actually did not deeply consider religion until after World War II, for instance not reading the Bible during his service. However, afterwards he did put more thought into his faith, becoming a practicing Methodist. In the clip of an interview with him, Ball says that he is not against war or for war. However, if defending a way of life is at stake, then a situation like war becomes necessary, which is akin to the sentiments of Newman and Dr. Sears. So, evidently these American Protestant veterans reconciled their participation in the sinful act of war by interpreting the conflict as a chance to preserve peace and the American Protestant way of life. In 1941, an Episcopalian Bishop named William T. Manning said:
“Speaking as an American, as a Christian, and as a bishop of the Christian church, I say that it is our duty as a Nation to take full part in this struggle, to give our whole strength and power to bring this world calamity and world terror to an end, and to do this now while Great Britain still stands.”⁶
¹ Ray H. Abrams, “The Churches and the Clergy in World War II,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 256 (1948): 118-119.
² Ray H. Abrams, “The Churches and the Clergy in World War II,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 256 (1948): 111.
³ Ray H. Abrams, “The Churches and the Clergy in World War II,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 256 (1948): 119.
⁴ C. Gregg Singer, A Theological Interpretation of American History (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Pub., 1964), 202-203.
⁵ Paul Sears, interviewed by Devin Baker, Kentucky Oral History Commission, June 10, 2016.
⁶ Ray H. Abrams, “The Churches and the Clergy in World War II,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 256 (1948): 114.