Spiritual Issues of the War


By CHARLES P. TAFT, Assistant Director, ODHWS

Delivered at annual meeting of the Board of Missions and Church Extension of the Methodist Church,Cleveland, Ohio, December 4, 1942

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. IX, pp. 253-256.

IN this furnace of war the Christian Church has a great opportunity. To meet that opportunity it must use intelligence as well as emotion and it must meet the spiritual problems posed by war with toughness and vigor.

The church must face the fact of war itself. War is the climax of evil in the world. It is horrible, cruel and contrary to all that Christ taught.

What is a Christian President to do then, when his nation, his people are attacked without warning? Once he has led the nation into war to defend itself, can he stop short of every effort, everywhere to defeat the forces that represent evil? Once our soldiers are in the fight, is Joe Palooka to shoot the fleeing Nazi in the back? Are we to preach our morning hate at breakfast? When we win are we to try for murder every Nazi governor who has shot innocent hostages, and put them to death like their victims? How will you treat after the victory the military caste and the Nazi higher-ups who believe in this war and all the vicious philosophy we know so well and hate so thoroughly?

Do you think those questions are easy to answer even in theory as we meet here comfortably to confer? Some of them are but most of them are extremely difficult. It may well be, as the Christian Century put it, that the answers you give are dictated in considerable part by nothing better than "communal instinct". But men who believe in God and love their fellow men have had to answer those questions with action and have had to answer to God and their fellow men for what they did. It was no theory for them. What help has the Christian Church given to those men? Was there an upbringing, a teaching, a philosophy, an association that gave those leaders and doers a surer choice between terrifying alternatives? Or did they end by feeling—what use was Christianity, anyway? Or did they just "act like you wasn't there", as the old play had it, and put Christianity in its place by ignoring it?

Many of these leaders and doers will think of pacifism when they think of religion. The sincere pacifist will expect that he may be persecuted for his convictions, and he will think perhaps of men like Ramsay MacDonald who wasdamned in the first war as a pacifist but rose to be Prime Minister later during the long armistice. I will not argue with the pacifist's conviction. I respect him for it, while I disagree vigorously. But I submit that he is thinking too much of his own position and of what people think of him, and not enough, if at all, about what he makes these harassed men of action think of Christianity. For obviously they are not helped by the man who says, "This is a dirty business; don't have anything to do with it." They are in it, no matter how they got there; they have to act. They can't not act. They are responsible; they must choose a course and follow it; not to act is itself a choice. They can't now be pacifists. What has Christianity to say to them? Let the pacifists, without giving up any of their own convictions, think out some answers to that problem in Christian teaching. It is the most important religious problem today.

This is the spiritual issue of the war. What has our religion to offer the men who have to lead us or fight for us? It is not much easier for non-pacifists to answer that question. Some other answers help no responsible man of action today. To say that if only we all were Christians, there would be no wars and everything would be all right, is the Pollyanna eyewash that has been preached too much. There is a war. We aren't all Christians, we shall not all be Christians, and it wouldn't alone solve our toughest technical problems of government and international relations if we were all to become Christians overnight, or in ten years, or in 100 years.

It takes tough thinking to meet this issue, and it has to begin with a basis of accurate history. Some publicists of the church with the help of a lost generation of historians have completely perverted much history since 1910. We are told we got into the first war because we or the international bankers were afraid if the Allies lost we should lose our loans. Ladies and gentlemen, it just didn't happen that way! The Germans had no real responsibility for the outbreak in 1914, so they say. Ladies and gentlemen, 'tain't so! I don't mean to say that the motives of everyone on our side were snow white, and all those on the other sidedeep red. But by and large Germany was then, and is now, an aggressor nation, and Britain and her allies were and are fighting for democratic idealism. Mussolini could call up blacker pages of British history than he did on Tuesday, but the balance of the centuries makes our common British inheritance the cradle of free government based on Christian faith in God and man. Start from that in your hard thinking.

I am not leading up to the conclusion that we ought to declare a Jehad, and go all out for a Holy War. But I do say to you that for the Church, and I mean the Protestant Church, to sit back muttering to itself, "Be the Church and be sure you don't declare a Holy War," is not a very admirable expression of affirmative Christian conviction. It doesn't sound much like St. Paul. Do you think that kind of Christian pronouncement will give the Church much place in the shaping of a peace?

For you and all the Protestant Churches are profoundly concerned in the settlements that will come after the war. You have said frequently that the last peace did violence to all canons of justice, and that Christian principles are the only ones that can guide the next peace aright. You blame all the leaders at Versailles because they were dominated by all kinds of wrong considerations.

But politicians just like those at Versailles are going to make the next peace. It will be a peace made between governments, and governments by definitions are run by politicians. A politician is a man who has enough skill and luck to get power in Government. Some are more skillful than others, but good or bad they are the ones who will run the show. Churchmen and professors, men of good will and sound ideas will not make this peace unless they are also politicians.

Now that may be distasteful to you, but again it is a fact just like the fact of war and the fact of responsible men of action who have to choose what they shall do. If you want to affect the peace you have to affect the responsible politicians who will make it. They are just another set of responsible men of action, except that they have to stand against more pulling and hauling than any other kind, and make more choices that involve problems of ethics and patriotism. They need more help from the Church and they get less, than any other group in the community.

So there is your spiritual issue of the war in a little more concrete terms. How are you to impress the politicians who will make the peace, with your competence and knowledge and the power of your faith so that you will influence the negotiations effectively, with Christian principles? You will have British and Russian and Chinese politicians to influence, too; don't forget that, for these are united nations and we shall not impose a peace on our allies. We can only persuade them.

It would be better of course if men representing Christian convictions sat at the peace table. But that means you have to convert the politicians in advance, and that forces you again to ask yourself what you have to offer them to help them in their business. Perhaps you object to putting it that way—"help them in their business"; the Church is there to bring salvation and preach Jesus Christ, you may say. Very well, but Christians live in an evil world and are Christians because theirs is the best faith to show them how to live in that world seven days a week, in their business as well as in Church. If it is only a Sunday religion you offer the peace maker, it won't affect his peacemaking much.

You can't any longer assume that a religion expressed in archaic or conventional terms will move the hearts of men. You must be prepared to have every self-evident truthquestioned, and you will find an unaccustomed and very healthy mental activity in the effort to restate what you really believe. You may find that you have been accepting a Rotarian creed of service, good as that is, for the foundation of a religion. That doesn't answer the problem of evil in the world.

There are some ideologies whose foundations are anti-religious, but which we don't recognize. You have to understand them if you want to affect the world of action, of politicians and captains of industry and plain working people and their families.

One of the worst examples of these basic ideas is the way we have come to believe there is something inevitable about war on economic disaster. The problem is so huge, we fearfully think, that nothing can solve it, except some apocalyptic overturn and a new governmental charter of salvation. Are we men or are we rabbits? Do you believe in God and his grace to us that lets us decide our own fate? Will we accept a new pre-destination without a fight?

But that is exactly what we have done, and most churches have never even seen the issue. They have let their spokesmen go rushing off on the theory that this world is destined for the bowwows either of illimitable unemployment or endless conflict between nations. To avoid that disaster they have seized upon attractive theories of socialism whose practical problems of human motivation in peace time few of its church endorsers have really thought out.

Men with God's help can make this world work if they face its conditions with clear eyes and level heads, looking for those elements which are on the side of right. Our pacifist friends have contributed to this fatalistic distortion. They talked of the futility of war. Yes, war is futile occasionally, but in the long story of man, it has been far from futile. Nor does it lead to inevitable dictatorship. Nothing is inevitable except God. The emotional pacifism which is really a fear of death for son or brother or husband is no credit to a Christian upbringing. And unfortunate was the rejection of international responsibility which was involved in much of the churches talk in the years between.

The most serious of the ideologies undermining our American tradition is postwar isolationism. This has no reference to pre-war attitudes. The post-war version takes a number of forms. One is a plain intentional misrepresentation of intelligent thinking about the peace. It is charged that all tariff walls are to be let down, immigration invited for all and our standard of living and wages destroyed by cheap labor or its produce. That is just silly. No Congress of any party would or could do it. But the straw man is set up to be knocked down.

A different and sincere version is when we are told by one of the most widely read columnists that we must not count on treaties with anybody after the war, for no nation will keep treaties, not even the United States. We cannot treat with the British Empire, for that is through, and nobody can rely on Russia. Everybody is to be distrusted and we are to look out for number one.

The trouble is that in this position there is a certain amount of truth. Treaties have been broken by all nations at some stages, and we have not yet found a way by which a nation can act except for its own fundamental interests. But the progress of civilization within a nation has been in the direction of the sanctity of contracts, and toward a greater measure of self sacrifice, with an increasing support from an enlightened individual self interest, an exchange of an apparent short term benefit for what we believe is a certain and sure future solution. Is it soft-hearted to believe that world civilization can follow the same course? Butwhen the politician faces the reality of a constituency and an election, don't try to sell him a blueprint of perfection which ignores the reality. Many preachers and church conferences on post-war reconstruction have attempted to do so. Stand up and fight for the capacity of man to face reality but to make plans that help aim toward the ideal.

It is a fight worthy of all the great metaphors of St. Paul. The worst of the post-war isolationists attack the very foundations of religion in the vicious defeatism of their day by day editorials in their small chain of papers. They have been given only too much encouragement by the predestination defeatism of far too large a group of Protestants. Here is a sample of their attack on religion:

"The core of that creed (with which our leaders are seeking to indoctrinate us in the middle of a desperate war) is the proposition that perpetual peace, plenty, prosperity and literacy for all can be obtained by fighting a great war. . . .

"But we have serious doubts that war is going to let the human race into such a paradise on earth as pictured by the

Tour Freedoms' evangels..............

"We believe that people are prompted to progress by want—want of things they haven't, and believe they can get if they strive hard enough—and that they are prompted by fear to make themselves as secure as possible in this chancy world. Want and fear, we believe, are two mainsprings of human progress."

You may have sympathy for the first proposition that war cannot bring good. But it is altogether clear that the war must be finished before we can go to work on our evangels, and that there are some finishes to the war that can make it impossible to go to work on them at all.

Whatever you think of the first, the second proposition of that editorial is straight Marxist materialism. By that test the Germans should be the most progressive people. Certainly the way a man earns his living and satisfies his wants affects his conduct, condition and ideas. But we believe both as Christians and as believers in democracy that at times of crisis man is moved and decides his problems by ideals of justice and freedom. This kind of postwar isolationism is an attack on the teachings both of Christ and of the fathers of this nation, and too many Protestant Churchmen are lending themselves unwittingly to its successful propagation. Against that defeatism of faith the Church should take the lead and the Catholic hierarchy has done so. Where are the Protestants?

My complaint is primarily in the field of faith, not in that of works. The service of the Protestant churches to the men in uniform, like that of all other churches, has been outstanding.

The critical frontier of the fight for our traditions now and when demobilization and reconversion of industry comes, is in the congested centers of military and naval training and of war production. The boys in the Army will want to go home and we can't let them, not at once, and the shell loaders and tank makers will have to find something else to work on. Those are the places where our fundamentals of life will be tested.

The churches are and will be there. In the little town or the big town where the boom strikes, the churches are likely to have some of the principal facilities for use in community service programs. Not all the denominations have given their hard worked home missions staff the funds to do the complete job. Some have held the money raised for special war work for soldiers only, although more and more the war industry towns present the tougher community problems. But within recent months you have become increasingly conscious of the problem and the finest examplesof Protestant unity come in your combined approach to the boom towns, especially in their great new public housing areas.

I would not be performing my duty if I did not call to your attention one matter in which the churches have not done as good a job. It is especially pertinent because it involves, on the local stage, the same problem of educating politicians and leading citizens as the influencing of the peace makers on the international front.

One of our responsibilities is to guide their attack on venereal disease epidemics which exist in all the cities and towns in the United States. The epidemic does not arise out of the war; it was there before, and that is exactly why I am picking this illustration of our work. That epidemic existed in those communities and the churches did practically nothing effective to get rid of it. From Pennsylvania and Maryland south around the circle and up the Pacific Coast with many other interior cities besides, there was a pattern of a segregated red light district and varying degrees of periodical medical examinations, which had community acceptance as the way to deal with prostitution. That acceptance was founded on a false propaganda of those in the dirty business, a propaganda so successful that in the Gallup Poll recently 55 percent of all people and only a little less than half of women in the U. S. believed that you could police prostitutes by weekly medical examinations.

What did the churches do to find out what the medical and police truth was? Practically nothing. What did they do to persuade the leading citizens, many of them their own constituents, that they should adopt the right methods for combating this vicious enemy of manpower? Nothing effective. They did not even know what the facts were about the epidemic. How many of you now know what the percentage was of your young men in your home county between 21 and 35 who had syphilis and were rejected when they were called in the first million in the draft? And why, why have you thought that Congress and the FBI could do more by Federal law to stop it than your own leading citizens and law enforcement officials? From outside your communities with only persuasion and facts we have induced your local officials to close 350 of your red light districts. But those officials need public support and our field staff of 35 can't build it for them alone. We need to have you learn a Christian philosophy adapted to politicians and mix it with plenty of facts on health and police techniques developed by health and police professional authorities. The last thing I want is a vice crusade, under church leadership. I am urging you to join a community attack on an epidemic damaging to manpower with wide social and moral implications.

I feel that I must also state to you the government's position on liquor. We are concerned, as in the case of venereal disease, with the effects on manpower, and the social and moral effects of drunkenness on the war effort, both among the men in uniform and the war workers. We measure our concern by the extent of those effects. We make it our business to measure accurately on the facts and to especially note the trends. We know the facts. We take vigorous action accordingly.

The facts are that absenteeism in industry on account of liquor is probably increasing. Steps are being taken without fanfare to meet the situation effectively.

Drinking and drunkenness among our men in uniform is decreasing. The cumulative number involved at no time exceeded 5 percent of the total in the Army, for example, if that, and the measures taken have eliminated drunkenness as a major problem for the Army in our nation.

I speak whereof I know personally and by accurate nationwide studies made in the last three weeks. The lurid reports to which the country has been treated in recent months are not an accurate picture, but are a libel on our own boys we have brought up and trained. I speak not from defensive inaction but from the front line of vigorous continuing action.

We oppose prohibition because it does not help our fight. We talk with knowledge when we say that it would inevitably destroy the foundation of professional police competence upon which we build our attack on prostitution. The liquor situation and the amount of drinking in and near the camps in dry areas is worse than in the rest.

We favor the serving of beer in the post exchanges. The survey to which I have just referred consulted all chaplains who could be reached about that. With hardly an exception they urged it be continued.

I have spoken to you tonight without mincing words. I hope I have not appeared too much in the role of critic. If this is the impression I have given I regret it, and I assure you it has been an unintentional reflection of the urgency that presses in me. The faith I profess is to me the only driving power that can lead men and nations through the long dark days ahead. But how can that faith lead anyone if it is not cast in the language and the state of mind of both the man in the street and the leaders of government and production and service?

This is a missionary faith of ours. It is so great to us that we must pass it on, around the world, we say. Then let us hammer out on the anvil of war what that faith is, and present it to our world from the country crossroads to the peace table in such persuasive terms that it can, through the human souls it touches, overcome the world.