World War II’s Spiritual Legacies

Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr called Nazism the first “great revolution” against Christendom. (Arguably the French and Bolshevik Revolutions were predecessors.) For this reason, among others, he founded the journal Christianity & Crisis in early 1941 to rally American Protestant opinion towards intervention against the Axis powers, and to reject their post WWI isolationism and pacifism, which he called a “cult of peace.” 

Niebuhr, the former pacifist, saw what Paul Miller describes, which was that “World War II started when preexisting national grievances met economic catastrophe, which in turn led to ideological radicalization, the rise of nationalism and authoritarianism, and eventually international aggression.” These ideological and military aggressions were, Miller rightly notes, “all enabled by the vacuum of global leadership by liberal powers.” Miller is understandably concerned that similar conditions exist today, potentially leading to WWII’s sequel. Only “drastic action” by today’s liberal powers will avert calamity’s replication. 

Miller, in his Niebuhrian plea, is not wrong. But, in the spirit of Niebuhr, maybe WWII’s spiritual background and implications should be more fully considered in any effort to avoid repeating what Churchill called “The Unnecessary War,” as no war should have been “more easy to stop.” WWII was facilitated by the refusal of Western powers to admit the reality of impending threats and their refusal of responsibility for resisting them.

That refusal was partly owing to the disastrous slaughter of WWI, widely portrayed in the 1920s and 1930s as senseless and fomented by self-serving arms merchants and financiers. There arose a widespread retrospective of moral equivalence between the Western allies and the Germanic forces. All the belligerents had been empires pursuing self-interest and blundering into war at the behest of puppeteers. That German autocracy and militarism had sought war and posed a unique threat to the parliamentary democracies became unfashionable to consider. For some British and Americans, it became chic to glamorize the Germans as superior to the French and undeserved victims. For some, this erroneous perspective exhibited Christian charity and humility towards former enemies. 

American Christianity no less than British Christianity had fervently supported WWI. Even Christian pacifists often backed defiance of the Kaiser as a special cause deserving exception from their spiritual preference for peace. Many American Christians believed German militarists were the bitter fruit of 19th century theological heterodoxy, which denied scriptural Christianity in favor of a Nietzschean will to power. Germany had effectively become pagan. American Protestant elites overwhelmingly were enthusiastic for Woodrow Wilson’s orderly Presbyterian vision of a just and equitable world order arbitrated by a League of Nations.

The failure of America to join the League, and the League’s subsequent own failures, disillusioned American Protestant elites. In the early 1920s they shifted quickly into an absolutist pacifism and a delusional vision that America could arbitrate the world’s disputes without becoming a party to alliances or leagues. The Great Depression amplified these trends, especially demonizing any spending on arms or aspirations for military adventures overseas. FDR himself, as an Episcopalian, declared himself to be a pacifist, expressing the conventional preferences of Protestant elites of his day. For the 1920s and early 1930s, Niebuhr fully shared in this trajectory. As a Protestant Social Gospel liberal, he had eagerly backed WWI, revolted in horror at its costs, imagined a utopia without war, and then returned to realism in reaction to German and Japanese aggression in the later 1930s. The suffering of China, long a source of Protestant missions and spiritual concerns, especially affected Niebuhr and more than a few Protestant elites. 

American isolationism and pacifism in the 1930s, fully embraced by Protestant elites, was not unpatriotic. It was rather fully synced with American Exceptionalism, imagining America as spiritually aloof from the world. America was perhaps a democratic exemplar, but it had no spiritual duty to share its political blessings with the world, which perhaps was unworthy or at least unprepared for democracy.

Western attitudes in Britain and France in the 1930s often were less robustly patriotic. British elites, including religious prelates, were increasingly skeptical of the empire and Britain’s ostensible special burdens in the world. French national self-doubts were even more profound. Its politics were more polarized than for Anglo-Americans. It had suffered more than they in WWI and was even more skeptical about its political institutions and role in the world. Its political leadership was far less influenced by religion, whose influence was limited to the political right. Parts of French Catholicism, disgusted by perceived social decadence, and terrified by Communism, became increasingly disenchanted by democracy and friendlier to rightwing authoritarianism that would infamously lead to collaboration during German occupation.

As the Western powers were increasingly uncertain about the validity of democracy in the world, and perhaps even for themselves, the Axis Powers seemed by contrast confident and dynamic. It would take the occupation of Poland, and the defeat of France, followed by the attack on Pearl Harbor, to remind the Anglo-American democracies of their duty to steward their unique political and spiritual assets. Niebuhr spoke of this special North Atlantic community of democracies and their providential responsibilities to resist the murderous anti-Christian revolution that had swept Europe, as well as the Japanese sweep through Asia.

Niebuhr of course was vindicated in his geopolitical appeal to Christian Realism, as American isolationism and pacifism became dormant after Pearl Harbor. After the war, Niebuhr and American Protestant elites would affirm America’s new global role as leader of the Western democracies. But Niebuhr, while supporting the United Nations and other international institutions, specifically warned against soaring ambitions often attached them. He saw dangers in American hubris about liberal internationalism, as Miller notes. And he saw equally urgent limits on American military or economic power’s ability to recraft the world into its own image.

If America is to sustain a world order in which democracy is safe and helps prevent calamitous military confrontation with authoritarians, it will need to leaven its fears with love and faith.

In Christianity & Crisis in 1945 Niebuhr reflected on WWII’s enormous costs and lessons for the future:

Let us therefore not seek to reduce the dimension of the history in which we are involved, so that it might be made more compatible with the limits of our powers. Let us recognize that we have faced the mystery of evil and of good, of tragedy and of victory, of divine judgment and mercy in more tremendous proportions than ever before in history. The humble consciousness of the inadequacy of our wisdom for the tasks which confront us may infuse our wisdom with grace and thus render it more adequate for the issues we must face.

Princeton Seminary President John A. Mackay warned against Western hubris amid the prostration of German and Japanese enemies. He specifically warned that Western democracy would have to be made appealing to the defeated peoples if they were permanently to renounce their political demons. Absent this appeal, future calamitous war was inevitable:

Through reasonable political and military measures another outburst of lawless demonism must be prevented. Retribution must be sternly exacted yet with mercy intermingled. For the victors should remember that, while being executors of God’s justice, they cannot themselves claim to be righteous in His sight. And woe betide any attempt at the permanent subjugation of the German and Japanese peoples! If at the close of the retribution period the economic and political arrangements still remaining in force do not commend themselves to the children of the vanquished as a fair attempt at international justice, there can be no abiding security. For no military might can cope forever with a burning sense of injustice.

Mackay quoted T. S. Eliot from Murder in the Cathedral:

Those who put their faith in worldly order
Not controlled by the order of God,
In confident ignorance, but arrest disorder
Make it fast, breed fatal disease,
Degrade what they exalt.

Mackay recalled that the victorious Western powers after WWI had succumbed to “political romanticism” and “failed to take adequate measures to guarantee international security.” He worried that this time, they would instead take “quite excessive measures” to guard their security.

Instead, the Western powers, as Miller notes, built an international security system constructed around American military and economic power, partnered with Western Europe, Japan and others. The defeated were indeed revived to become allies, contributing to victory in a nearly 45-year long Cold War, and maintain a relative global peace across much of 75 years. 

Miller rightly worries that this consensus behind that USA-backed global order, which was spiritually sustained by Western Christianity and its democratic ethos, has fractured after a spectacular three quarters of a century of success. Amidst global doubts about democracy, even within the West, including America, and the assertiveness of Chinese and Russian authoritarians, Miller sees the clouds of WWIII. Although he does not reference it, America and the West are spiritually somewhat where they were in the 1930s. Religion in Europe is deflated and largely unsupportive of national purpose.

In America, religion is still more vigorous but also divided over America’s role in the world. Religionists of the right and left are increasingly skeptical of America’s global purpose. In their politics, they are tribalistic and fatalistic. There are few Niebuhrian voices pointing to duty and realism. Part of the problem is that, due to the collapse of institutional Protestantism and its intellectual life, few distinctly theological perspectives on American global statecraft are offered. Conservative Christians, bereft of others’ resources, often fall into line behind Trumpian American Greatness themes that are secular and stress USA interests to exclusion of international responsibilities. Leftist Christianity has also secularized, demonizing American influence but incongruently demanding that America sacrificially provide goods and services to the world. A Christian Realism that affirms American strength as a spiritual and moral project that must be carefully stewarded, and which inevitably will entail tragic consequences even in best case scenarios, is notably often missing.

It’s debatable whether America is more secular than in Niebuhr’s day. Church attendance in the 1930s was about where it is today, although religious institutions, and certainly Protestant elites, have far less influence today than then. Yet America is still, in its DNA, profoundly religious and mostly Protestant in its self-understanding. Recovery of national purpose and renewed international commitment will require spiritual arguments and energy. 

In 1941, before Pearl Harbor, Niebuhr warned against the widespread fatalism that despaired of active resistance to the Axis powers. He noted in Christianity & Crisis

Christian faith cannot be defeatist. It sees men’s sin and tragedies. It knows the depths of human degradation & the long road to the City of God. But it also sees men in the strength of God rising to the need & the struggle, confident, victorious in spirit.

After WWII, Niebuhr’s theologian colleague John C. Bennett, later president of Union Seminary where Niebuhr taught, similarly warned against fatalism. In Christianity & Crisis, he urged that America channel its fears about the postwar world into a more hopeful future:

The Christian lives in view of the threat of the divine judgment but he knows that this judgment is conditional, that it is not a fate before which men are helpless and he knows that the love of God is at work in surprising ways to lead men to a new possibility of good. Fear is healthy when it is in company with love and faith.

If America is to sustain a world order in which democracy is safe and helps prevent calamitous military confrontation with authoritarians, it will need to leaven its fears with love and faith. The Christian developed ethic of democracy and human rights premised on universal human dignity is the most compelling political message in the world today, or ever. But that message will need the constant collaboration of military preparedness and political sagacity by the democracies, sustained by faith, as they contend for the world’s future. 

Reader Discussion

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on August 19, 2020 at 08:59:32 am

Except for the grasp of reality in Professor Schneider's essay, this foreign policy forum suffers from reasoning by inapposite historical analogy; vague rhetoric about threats, ideals, religion and moral obligations; and undue emotional angst about the "America First" quality of America's foreign policy under President Trump, an angst which, except for Schneider's essay, fails to account for what President Trump has actually done and what more he says he wants to do. One must focus on the authentic nationalism and hard-core realism of Trump's foreign policy. To do that is to appreciate how far Trump has gone to avoid repeating the failed American foreign and international trade/business policies between 1989-2016 and the extent to which he has adapted to new, different realities by correcting past deficiencies toward Red China, North Korea, Iran, Israel and Russia; developing updated and (at last) realistic policies toward western Europe, NATO and the UN; adopting creative new trade policies toward Canada, Mexico and China and strengthened collective security policies toward the Pacific Rim and Eastern Europe; and, most important of all, a first-time policy of military strength, legal retaliation, economic confrontation and forceful counter-engagement toward Red China. Trump's new-where-needed and revised-where-appropriate foreign policy is an engaged, realistic "America First" foreign policy. It is soundly patterned after the successes in America's foreign policy history and theory. Trump, Pompeo and Mnuchin are following the basic theory of engaged realism espoused by the intellectual giants of engaged foreign policy realism, Hans Morgenthau, Reinhold Niebuhr and George Kennan. Trump, Pompeo and Mnuchin adhere to the history of the giants of American foreign and international trade/business policy, Washington and Adams on smart non-involvement and abjuring over-extension, Hamilton on preparedness, JQ Adams on assertion of national interest, TR on projecting strength while avoiding collision, William McKinley and Andrew Mellon on trade in America's interest; George C. Marshall on targeted and smart, not blanket and blind collective security; and Ronald Reagan on meeting strength with greater strength and (now) "distrust but verify."

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on August 19, 2020 at 14:03:49 pm

"... a first-time policy of military strength, legal retaliation, economic confrontation and forceful counter-engagement toward Red China."
And since this approach and attitude was in evidence long before the pandemic, the Democrats cannot now claim that our more jaundiced view of the CCP is just an election year trick to rile up his political base.

Reflecting on your list of intellectual giants and statesmen, and the dearth of people today that we might consider placing among their exalted ranks, I presume people in that time past also wondered if their current leaders were worthy of the respect granted to the political and intellectual leaders prior to their own time.

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on August 19, 2020 at 10:31:16 am

Tooley's essay underscores how building alliances, and a global culture of respect for sovereignty, the nurturance of Human Rights and the democratic ideals of the West was arduous, required time and discipline, and was always about hope and aspiration. The goal of a world order of decency, rule of law and democracy is elusive and a long range tale of work and achievement--as well as a respect for the values and beliefs in divine providence. The vulgar, corrupt, ignorant and self-serving nature of the Trump era (if one can call it an era) demonstrates the swift and graceless character of its destruction. If there was actually a meaningful end in the Trump "vision" one could engage in meaningful dialogue. Even so, dialogue is pointless when there are no real goals, but a chaotic sense of disruption and profit-taking. Great alliances and agreements have costs, and to lead them a great nation must pay a price. For all that America has paid up to now, the chaotic and dishonest destruction of so many things: NATO, The United Nations, the Paris Climate Agreement, the JCPOA and etc., seems a waste of precious legacy. The intemperate policies with our Border neighbors, dismantling of global environmental treaties, and so much more --all over-shadowed by pandering to dictators, tyrants and fools. Tooley makes the sense of sorrow over the rapid fall of a global order all the more tangible and compelling.

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Anthony Raymond Brunello
on August 19, 2020 at 13:36:12 pm

Perhaps with the exception of a reformed and realigned NATO, your catalog of institutions and agreements facing "chaotic and dishonest destruction" at Trump's hands do not really deserve any preservation in their current or past form. Dishonest and self-serving are the words that come to mind for the rest. I was a little dismayed when Trump stepped away from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement. As a basically ignorant layman-citizen I was under the impression it was probably a good arrangement for the US. A quick search just now suggests that Trump is revisiting that decision and negotiations to rejoin it are perhaps underway outside of the public eye. He has also established what appear to be really solid relationships with Ministers Abe of Japan, Modi of India, and Morrison of Australia.

Whatever else might be said about incorporating past Christian legacy perspectives into our foreign policies or to improve the international world order, facing reality and accepting responsibility for what we find must still be part of our path to liberty, domestically and internationally.

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on August 19, 2020 at 14:26:18 pm

I failed to add to my summary of Trump's impressive, game-changing foreign policy his proposed new report/policy on human rights. This change is a dramatic improvement because it would re-establish America as the beacon of freedom and hope for the legally-downtrodden, politically-tyrannized, religiously-persecuted wretched of the earth. This will be a big change for the better, since post-WWII, until the Trump Administration, America had failed to appreciate the reality that most victims of political and religious persecution would rather be inspired by example, educated by the voice of freedom, assisted with food, medicine and information; and helped by diplomacy than bombed and destroyed by foreign invasion. The new approach is also much cheaper for US taxpayers and much healthier for young American men and women.

The proposed new American position on human rights is under fire from the Left, of course, for two reasons: It is proposed by Trump and because it fails to commit America to war for the LGBTQ community, now at the top of the list on human rights priorities for the neo-Marxists/cultural-nihilists who hate Trump because he threatens their ascendancy.
Here is a link to a thorough discussion of the new statement on human rights:

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on August 20, 2020 at 09:38:11 am

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