A Cautious Patriotism: The American Churches and the Second World War. – book reviews

John F. Piper, Jr.

By Gerald L. Sittser. University of Nebraska Press, 384 pp., $34.95.

Students of American religious history know that some topics, like the emergence and evolution of denominations, have been discussed again and again. Others, like the role of religion in the wars of the 20th century, have received little attention. Gerald L. Sittser has begun to fill this gap.

Sittser attempts to tell the whole story, but is careful not to try to do everything. He says, “As if flying a reconnaissance mission over vast stretches of uncharted territory, [this book] will read the terrain in only one way and sketch only one kind of map. This map will introduce a new question into the study of the Second World War: what was the nature of the church’s patriotism during the war?” His answer is in the title: “A cautious patriotism.”

Sittser follows the theme of patriotism through the debates between the neutralists and the interventionists, the discussions over theodicy, the relationship of the churches to democracy and the duties of citizenship and the participation of the churches in mobilizing the nation for war. He considers the ministry to men and women in the military, disputes over civil rights at home, discussions about a breakdown of morals at home, and issues related to the creation of a just and lasting peace.

This book is about the churches; it does not refer to other religious groups. Sittser is careful to give equal billing to all denominations, to Protestants and Catholics, and to interdenominational groups, especially the Federal Council of Churches. There were a number of religious leaders during the war, but he believes that none of them dominated the story. Only Reinhold Niebuhr receives significant attention.

Sittser presents a rich variety of issues. He argues that many religious leaders believed that Western civilization faced a major crisis in the years leading up to World War II. He cites Niebuhr: “We are witnessing the first effective revolution against Christian civilization since the days of Constantine.” Sittser points out that each war the U.S. has been involved in during this century has taken place in,a different context and has generated different responses from the religious leaders and the churches.

He argues that the churches faced three possible answers to the question of the nature of their patriotism during the war. They could have chosen to be “fanatically patriotic,” “unpatriotic” or “cautiously patriotic.” These are clearly theoretical choices, and include an improbable if not false one. He claims that “fanatically patriotic” characterized the response of the American churches to World War I; but that is not the whole story of the churches during that war. He might have been better off establishing the polarities as “militant patriotism” and “prophetic patriotism.”

Sittser explores the way different religious bodies responded to the war in Europe and to America’s involvement in that war, spending time with case studies of the Disciples, the Methodists, the Roman Catholics and the Christian Reformed. I question putting all the rest into a small section called “Other Perspectives”–the Lutherans (United), the Congregationalists, the Baptists (North and South), the Presbyterians (North), the Mennonite Brethren, the Church of the Brethren and the Friends. The Southern Baptists (who in 1941 moved away from cautiousness) and the traditional peace churches are limited to one paragraph each. Some reorganization of this chapter might have given a better representation to these churches, many of which were larger in numbers and influence than the Disciples and the Christian Reformed.

Sittser discusses race and diversity, and the extent to which the churches responded to the suffering of others. He reviews the experiences of Japanese-Americans, African-Americans, Jehovah’s Witnesses, communists and fascists and the responses of the church to them. Church members and leaders responded better as individuals than as churches to the needs of those experiencing racism. The Federal Council of Churches called on churches to fight for civil liberties at home while fighting the war abroad. Sittser points out that “Fundamentalists, Evangelicals and other conservatives were virtually silent on the issue of civil liberties.” He reviews the suffering of the Jews in Europe and those who experienced obliteration bombing. Though some church leaders took a prophetic position on these questions, they were not able to persuade many church members or the general public to act effectively on behalf of those who suffered. In general, “The vast majority of Christians in America were too intent on bringing the war to an end, using whatever means were necessary.”

Sittser says he has tried to “prove” that the churches’ position on patriotism was “cautious.” He has at least produced a well-written and persuasive argument.

Reviewed by John F. Piper Jr., dean of Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.

COPYRIGHT 1997 The Christian Century Foundation

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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