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Onward, Christian Soldiers

The War for Righteousness: [Progressive Christianity, the Great War, and the Rise of the Messianic Nation, Richard M. Gamble, ISI Books, 306 pages]

The Clinton administration’s war on Serbia served to remind us that many flower children are quite happy to make war after all. Whatever the real motivations for that mystifying decision—with the atrocity propaganda used to justify Bill Clinton’s war now seeming more and more like the stockpiles of WMD in Iraq—it was explicitly carried out in the name of multiculturalism and diversity. Since the end of the Cold War, significant segments of the political Left have shown themselves every bit as disposed to violence as the neoconservatives they criticize, as long as the bombing can be justified in the saccharine language of a progressive-sounding cause.What Richard Gamble has done in this important study is to show that this violent tradition of liberal righteousness extends much further into the past. The War for Righteousness chronicles the story of “progressive” Christian clergy, whom we might expect to be faithful to the Prince of Peace, but who instead overwhelmingly favored U.S. involvement in World War I. German militarism, which they viewed as responsible for the war, was in their eyes a scourge upon civilization that had to be eradicated; otherwise the international order would not be redeemed and ultimately set on the path of righteousness.

That is an important piece of history in itself. But Gamble also shows how these clergymen, caught up in their conviction that the U.S. was at least in some sense the savior of the world, applied to America the same language that Christians had traditionally applied to Christ. The Christian categories and concepts that Social Gospel theologians had found malleable enough to make railroad regulation sound like a direct command of Christ were thus drafted into service in the conflict that had engulfed Europe. It thus became impossible for them to conceive of the war in measured, rational terms: to America they had assigned the righteousness of Christ, and there could be no compromise between Christ and Satan.

For many of the progressive Christians about whom Gamble writes, the main villain in the story of the Christian religion was St. Paul, who allegedly transformed the ethical religion of Jesus into the dogmatic system of confessional Christianity. They blamed an “individualistic” understanding of sin and salvation for what they saw as an insufficient social consciousness among the churches. In other words, Christians had been so preoccupied with working out their own salvation that they had neglected the social dimension of redemption.

These thinkers likewise criticized a transcendent view of the kingdom of God, suggesting instead that the kingdom of God would be achieved once “justice” had come to characterize human relations and social ills were at last eradicated. According to Rev. C. Arthur Lincoln, pastor of Buffalo’s First Congregational Church, the church’s goal was “not that men should become Christians and thus save their souls from hell but that men should become Christian and work hard to save the world from hell.” It was with such thoughts in mind that progressive Christians threw themselves into the holy cause of World War I.

It was once the conventional wisdom that World War I marked the end of progressivism in America. But as economist and historian Murray N. Rothbard showed, the war in fact represented the culmination of progressivism. The progressive mentality that was so anxious for Americans to shed Jeffersonian cautions about big government was gratified by the domestic consequences of the war. Progressives, who overwhelmingly supported U.S. entry, were delighted at the opportunity both to extend state power through the massive economic planning that Woodrow Wilson adopted during the war and to exploit wartime patriotism to promote collectivism and the idea of service to the state as American values.And that is just how progressive Christianity saw things as well. Christian Century happily predicted that “the right of the State to commandeer its able-bodied citizens for service will survive the war and will be greatly strengthened by it.” Military training camps, they hoped, would become “permanent features of our national life,” though they would train men for social service rather than for war.Christian Century likewise spoke of the increasing acknowledgment of “the social sin of the German nation as a whole.” Now that America understood the important progressive Christian concepts of social sin and guilt, it would “be incomparably easier to apply the principle of social sinning to groups and institutions within a single nation and to bring to bear upon them through the social gospel the super-personal forces of condemnation and destruction.” The war had thus facilitated the application of the social gospel both domestically and internationally.

According to Gamble, progressive Christians viewed the war in Manichaean terms rather than as the morally ambiguous clash of imperial rivals that it was. “For some of the clergy,” he explains, “the European War by 1916 had already assumed the character of a holy war.” He quotes a seminary professor as saying that “pacifism does not mean passivity” and “does not renounce physical force.” To remain neutral while Europe fought its own wars “may have been justifiable for our nation in its infancy; it is not now. The pacifists do not advocate any such peace policy as that. Their motive is not safety but service. They would have ours not a hermit nation but a humanitarian nation.”

Gamble cites a number of figures who actually feared that the conflict might end prematurely, before righteousness had had the opportunity to triumph. One progressive Christian told a meeting of the World Alliance for International Friendship Through the Churches, “We do not want the war stopped until peace can be established on the basis of justice. For myself I believe it must be fought out.”

When in December 1916 Woodrow Wilson invited the major powers to state their war aims (as a prelude to possible talks aimed at an end to hostilities), 60 prominent clergymen signed a letter of rebuke to the president. “We are apt to forget,” they wrote, “that there are conditions under which the mere stopping of warfare may bring a curse instead of a blessing. We need to be reminded that peace is the triumph of righteousness and not the mere sheathing of the sword.”

The idiom of the progressive Christian even made its way into the halls of Congress on the eve of war. More than one congressman compared Christ’s sacrifice for the sins of the world to the divine mission that the U.S. was about to undertake. A New York congressman declared that “Christ gave his life upon the cross that mankind might gain the Kingdom of Heaven, while to-night we shall solemnly decree the sublimest sacrifice ever made by a nation for the salvation of humanity, the institution of world-wide liberty and freedom.”

Gamble contends that in the name of bringing about perpetual peace, progressive clergy, through their crude application of Christian language and concepts to the war and its contending parties, helped to legitimize the 20th century’s first total war. “They transported the war out of the sordid but understandable realm of national ambition, rivalry, and interests—where policies and goals can be debated and defined—into the rarified world of ideals, abstractions, and politicized theology, where dissent and limitations are moral failures or even heresies.” He continues:

Thus, drawing upon the metaphors already habitual in the social gospel vocabulary of applied Christianity—crusades, suffering Christ-nation, vicarious wars of service, and so on—the progressive clergy consciously and deliberately provided the images of the United States, of Germany, and of the war’s ultimate meaning that were indispensable in waging total war.

There is something unsettling, even obscene, about Christian clergymen embracing the savage mentality that demands total war and unconditional surrender, when it should have been Christian clergymen above all who rejected these rotten fruits of the 20th century. But leftist clergy who had so eagerly conformed their religion to the spirit of the age, condemning as backward and foolish those who still believed the Christian faith had something to do with the Nicene Creed, turned out to be pushovers for the whole modern package. In the progressive mindset, the war became the proving ground for Christians who possessed a social consciousness. Instead of focusing on the hereafter, the truly saved Christian was the one who offered himself here and now in service to his fellow man. “The best mark of a ‘saved’ man,” wrote Rev. William P. Merrill in his book Christian Internationalism, “is not that he wants to go to heaven, but that he is willing to go to China, or to the battle-field in France, or to the slums of the city, or to the last dollar of his resources, or to the limit of his energy, to set forward the Kingdom of God.” This is a particularly revealing remark, according to Gamble: “In Merrill’s expansive ideal, there was apparently no distinction between personal redemption, social service, and enlistment in the United States Army.”

Ecumenism is an inevitable byproduct when a pluralistic society goes to war, since it becomes urgent to emphasize that what unites the citizenry is more important than what divides them. Serving in the trenches alongside men of a variety of creeds and performing reciprocal acts of heroism can only have a similar effect. Recognizing this, a New York Morning Telegraph editorial in 1918 observed that “loyalty to the flag swiftly is coming to be recognized as of equal or even greater virtue than fidelity to a church, a religious sect, or an ordained priesthood. … Soldiers of Moses, soldiers of Christ, and soldiers of Democracy have become unified in the one Grand Army of Liberty, which is giving the only meaning worth while to …‘The Church Militant.’” Thus was the United States made something sacred, higher than all other fidelities and obligations.

Socialist Upton Sinclair predicted that the war would have a transforming effect upon the churches, spreading the progressive gospel at the expense of old-fashioned dogmatism. The churches would now be “inspired by things read, not in ancient Hebrew texts, but in the daily newspapers.” The individual minister would, by his experience with trench warfare, emerge from the conflict “less the bigot and formalist forever after,” thanks to his lesson in “co-operation and social solidarity.” Sinclair looked forward to the emergence of a church “redeemed by the spirit of Brotherhood, the Church which we Socialists will join.”Richard Gamble has made an enormously important contribution not only to historical scholarship but also to our understanding of one of the ideological strains that has played so influential a role in our national life. The idiom of liberal Christianity, as Paul Gottfried points out in Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt, continues to suffuse our cultural life to this day, even if the fashionable causes with which the mainline churches now involve themselves would have disgusted the liberals of yesteryear.

Having lost whatever faith they may have had in the religion of the Fathers and the councils, or even of Luther and Calvin, so-called progressive Christians, full of self-congratulation over having emancipated themselves from the creeds and dogmas of the past, fell for the worst superstition and idolatry of all in their deification of the state. Although Gamble’s lack of sympathy with liberal Christianity is clear enough, his sense of scholarly detachment prevents him from applying the word blasphemy to the works of progressive Christianity. The reviewer, however, is bound by no such restraint.


Thomas E. Woods Jr., is the author of The Church Confronts Modernity: Catholic Intellectuals and the Progressive Era (Columbia University Press, forthcoming).



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