Introduction: Religion & War
The relationship between religion and war is one that is often overlooked when discussing World War II. This is not only due to the fact that perhaps popular discourse about the war has not given significant enough attention to religious perspectives, but also because American church leaders themselves were generally calm about the war, for instance paying “relatively less attention to the current problems of [World War II] than one might have supposed”¹ in their wartime sermons.
Therefore, it is important to investigate such a relationship between religion and war because it then becomes clearer why Americans fought in the world’s deadliest conflict, how normal Americans actually fared military service, and perhaps even whether such a long and horrible endeavor was necessary and wise for its time.
Apart from historians' own discourse about churches in the U.S. during World War II, it is crucial to examine what actual American veterans who served in the U.S. military during the conflict thought and felt, which can be done through viewing personal interviews posted throughout this site. These veterans live across the Commonwealth of Kentucky, and most of them belong to Protestant denominations. It becomes evident that World War II presented an interesting dilemma for American Christians that they could not resolve.
That is, on the one hand, many American veterans who identified as Protestant Christians were brought up in households and communities that taught them the core tenets of Jesus Christ's message. For example, they were brought up learning that "For out of the heart proceed [...] murders..." (Matthew 15:19 [KJV]) or "Thou shalt not kill" (Exodus 20:13 [KJV]).
So, a profound contradiction arose when, on the other hand, these veterans were stationed overseas in the middle of a war, where the only way for them to survive was to kill, lest they be killed.
Thus, what is perhaps the "ultimate dilemma" was presented to American Protestantism and its adherents. In other words, these veterans' religion told them that killing was wrong, but their country told them that killing was necessary.
This "ultimate dilemma" brought on by World War II certainly left many torn in the vast realm of American Protestantism. But what I have found is that, in many cases, veterans of this specific but diverse affinity group adapted their religion in wartime, relying on it in many different ways. These veterans used their religion to their own benefit, as opposed to their religion using them. Whether that meant simply using faith as a haven amid battle, justifying their involvement in the war, or even straightening out their lives after their service by finding God, these particular veterans of an American Protestant background used their religion to accommodate their lives stricken by the violent and harsh reality of World War II.
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): 116.