Today is the 71st anniversary of Pearl Harbor. Seems like not too long ago when there were still lots of people around who personally recalled that day as unequaled in their memory. My grandmother would remember to me that she had been ironing clothes as a recently married woman in southwest Virginia when she listened to FDR’s declaration of war the next day. In recent years, only 9-11 approaches the significance of December 7, 1941 for contemporary Americans. But Pearl Harbor’s ramifications, drawing America into a global war in which over 400,000 Americans died, were even more vast.
The drama of that day for America was accentuated by the semi isolationism and accompanying pacifism that had captivated the nation for the previous 20 years post World War I. Actively promoting both were the mainline churches, then far more influential than in recent decades. As my friend Joe Loconte has written, between 1938 to 1941, U.S. Protestant groups issued 50 statements about world peace, “but barely a handful argued that the defeat of Nazism was essential to international justice.” Familiar anti-American and pacifist attitudes, accompanied by moral indifference to murderous regimes and movements, were too common in prestigious religious circles. Loconte quotes the founding editor of the Christian Century: “It is not a war to preserve civilization!” Charles Clayton Morrison had instead insisted: “It is the war itself that is destroying civilization–destroying it increasingly with each day that the war lasts, and destroying it definitively if it lasts to the point of victory, no matter which side wins.”
Harry Emerson Fosdick of New York’s Riverside Church and Union Seminary was perhaps the era’s most prominent clergy. He was also a staunch pacifist. “We see clearly that a war for democracy is a contradiction in terms, that war itself is democracy’s chief enemy,” he explained.
Prominent Methodist clergy Ernest Fremont Tittle suggested Nazi aggression was provoked by economic injustice, and he urged an international peace summit. He touted a “policy not of appeasement but of reconciliation.” And he wanted governments, like Christ, to turn the other cheek. “The Son of God . . . resists evil but never with its own weapons,” he wrote. “He resists it with truth and love even unto death.” Check out Joe Loconte’s book, The End of Illusions: Religious Leaders Confront Hitler’s Gathering Storm, for more background on pre-World War II church attitudes.
And check out my own Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth Century, with a chapter devoted to Methodist pacifism and World War II. Northern Methodism established a Commission on World Peace after World War I that became a full-time advocate for pacifism, continuing its work quietly even during World War II to encourage conscientious objectors. At the 1940 General Conference, while Germany was overrunning France, delegates resolved that Methodism “will not officially endorse, support, or participate in war.” A somewhat disapproving British Methodist observer present, conscious that his own nation was about to stand alone against Hitler, told delegates: “It is difficult for me to see how neutrality and isolation are among the Christian virtues, but we in England are confident that you will do the right thing.”
Retired Bishop James Cannon, a once prominent Prohibition leader, created a public brouhaha when he denounced neutrality and pacifism, declaring, “injustice, cruelty, persecution are worse than war.” The church’s Commission on World Peace anxiously publicized that Cannon did not speak for the church. As war with Japan loomed, famed Methodist missionary to India E. Stanley Jones met with FDR and urged a personal appeal to the Japanese Emperor. Jones also implausibly suggested Australia and Holland give Japan New Guinea in exchange for Japan’s withdrawal from China. After the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, Jones faulted America’s “virtual ultimatum” to Japan over China, saying: “Japan is the immediate cause of this war, but America has her responsibility in the remote causes that led up to it.”
Coincidentally, Methodism’s bishops were gathered when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. They essentially ignored Methodism’s official anti-war stance and wired FDR: “In this hour of peril [we assure you] of our profound sympathy and loyalty and above all our earnest prayers that in this national crisis you may have divine guidance and support.” One bishop denounced Japan for “outrageous barbarism” that necessitated America’s declaration of war. Another bishop said: “When the Japanese stabbed us in the back…there was nothing for America to do but go out in defense of ourselves.” The bishops collectively told the church: “In this crisis, as in all previous crises in our history, the Methodists of America will support our President and our nation.”
Three years later, at the 1944 General Conference, Rev. Tittle chaired a legislative committee urging reaffirmation of the church’s anti-war stance. But a minority report alternatively urged: “We are well within the Christian position when we assert the necessity of the use of military forces to resist an aggression which would overthrow every right which is held sacred by civilized men.” The minority report, which required approval separately by lay and clergy delegates, passed, but only by 1 vote among the clergy.
Attitudes and debates of today in our churches about war and peace are little different from 70 years ago. Every generation concerned with God’s purposes for the state and justice must explain anew that military force is a divinely ordained responsibility for all legitimate governments in proper circumstances.