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The War for RighteousnessProgressive Christianity, the Great War, and the Rise of the Messianic Nation
By Richard M. Gamble
ISI BooksCopyright © 2007 Richard M. Gamble
All right reserved.
IntroductionWandering for miles along the narrow roads that thread their way among the modest farms and tiny villages of northeastern France, the modern pilgrim is unprepared for the dazzling spectacle of the American military cemetery of the Meuse-Argonne. Situated in a rural landscape that still bears the scars of the twentieth-century's domineering will to power, the massive cemetery blankets hundreds of perfectly manicured acres donated to the United States by a grateful France in 1918. A chapel stands at one end with a commanding view of tree-lined roads, tranquil gardens, and endless rows of thousands upon thousands of precisely aligned white crosses. Inside the chapel, a book of remembrance records the sentiments of guests, often simply saying, "Merci pour la France." The ceiling and walls bear pious inscriptions promising that these men and their brave deeds will never be forgotten.
On rare sunny days in the otherwise sodden and chilly climate of this remote part of France, the marble crosses gleam with an arresting brilliance. They silently await the Judgment Day in solemn testimony to the American servicemen who died in the grim and bloody action along the Western Front, not far from the horror of Verdun, in the final autumn of the war. Scattered among the crosses are some that simply read, "Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God." But most provide the soldier's name, rank, home state, and date of death. Some were killed as late as the very morning of the Armistice; others died of their wounds months later. No date of birth is given, however, obscuring just how young, how tragically young, most of these soldiers were when they fell. Despite the apparent uniformity and blended anonymity of this voiceless "democracy of the dead," these crosses bear family names from Italy, Poland, Germany, France, the British Isles, Russia, and beyond-Europe's sons returned to fight Europe's war.
The story that follows recovers part of the reason these American soldiers lie buried in France. It is not a story of military tactics, innovative weaponry, or trench life. It is not primarily an account of diplomacy and politics-although diplomats and politicians appear in these pages. Rather, it is a story of ideas, of the deepest ideas regarding purpose and meaning, and the definition of national identity and destiny at a critical moment. It is not a story about the physical landscape of the First World War, but rather about the inner landscape of one prominent group of Americans and what they imagined to be true about their God, their nation, their enemies, and the unfathomable European War of 1914 to 1918. It is an attempt to map the geography of a set of ideas, to trace the use of the redemptive imagery of the cross of Christ to wage an uncompromising war for righteousness. It begins and ends with theology, and shows how one group of American pastors, theologians, seminary professors, and college presidents confronted some of the timeless problems of Christian theology in the context of total war.
The self-described "progressives" among America's Protestant clergy at the turn of the twentieth century were well known in church circles and beyond for their advanced thinking on theology, politics, and foreign affairs. As they faced the prospect of a new century, these ministers and academics thought of themselves as broad-minded, humane, and cosmopolitan, in harmony with the very best scientific, political, and theological wisdom of the age. In short, they were among the "right thinking" leaders of their day. These reformers have since been labeled "liberal" or "modernist" by historians, but the word "progressive" suited their character and their times. It was the adjective they chose to describe their vision. They were eager participants in a world marked by material progress and technological efficiency and by an increasing moral rigor and earnestness in domestic and foreign policy. The progressive clergy imagined themselves, their faith, and their nation as poised on the brink of opportunity, on the verge of an unprecedented chance to serve Humanity by spreading America's material, political, and spiritual progress.
But these clergy were also aware of standing between two worlds, as they would have described the sensation, between a receding order of tradition, conservatism, and reaction on the one hand, and an approaching order of reform, liberalism, and reconstruction on the other; between an intellectual obscurantism fraught with barbarism, depravation, and war arrayed against a coming clarity of thought that promised civilization, plenty, and peace. Within their own churches, these progressive ministers strove against theological traditionalism for the sake of a new Christianity, one that would make its peace with the modern world. The names of these clergy may have slipped from modern memory, yet they spoke for their generation's serious and urgent effort to adapt itself to the emerging world that was so quickly replacing the old.
Primarily, these religious progressives interpreted the First World War in light of their social gospel theology. The liberal clergy were not merely lackeys in the Wilson administration's attempts at social control, nor were they caught unaware and unprepared by the outbreak of the war; rather, these forward-looking clergy embraced the war as a chance to achieve their broadly defined social gospel objectives. In the same way that American imperialism at the turn of the century was, as historian William E. Leuchtenburg argued, not a betrayal of domestic reform idealism but rather the expression of the same expansive, interventionist spirit on an international scale, so too the progressive clergy's enthusiasm for American participation in the Great War did not contradict their progressive theology. Their enthusiasm for the war was an acknowledged extension of their theological progressivism. They seized upon the war as an opportunity to reconstruct the churches, America, and the world according to the imperatives of the social gospel. Their peacetime crusade became a wartime crusade.
Judging by how many books and articles appeared during the war bearing such titles as "The War and Religion," and by the degree to which theological interpretations of the war permeated wartime political rhetoric, it is clear that the Great War struck a number of Americans first and foremost as a battle possessing transcendent meaning, as the knowable outworking of God's plan for humanity. The progressive clergy were quick to point out this significance and to advance their interpretation. Throughout the following study, the participants speak for themselves as much as possible. How they expressed themselves-the words and metaphors they habitually chose-reveals much about how they thought. Their language was shared by a large community in the church and beyond, appearing repeatedly in sermons, books, denominational magazines, and also, to a remarkable degree, in the secular press and in political speeches directed to a variety of audiences, all of whom were expected to respond in a predictable way to these sacred images. Their own words help open the interior world of the progressive clergy and reassemble the ideas they used to explain the war to themselves, to the American public, and to the world.
The title for this book comes from an essay by the distinguished twentieth-century British historian Herbert Butterfield. In his essay "The War for Righteousness," Butterfield argued that the horror of modern warfare is not attributable primarily to advanced industrial technology, as we might naturally assume, but rather to modern states' willingness to engage in ideological wars with no room for compromise or limited objectives. The brutal "Wars of Religion" that devastated Europe after the Protestant Reformation, Butterfield argued, were reincarnated in the twentieth century, when once again international contests were invested with transcendent meaning and transformed into absolute struggles between light and darkness. In 1914, he continued, each nation told its people "that our enemy is worse than the rest of human nature and that his wickedness demands utter destruction." The progressive clergy contributed profoundly to this mentality of total war and played a vital role in turning at least their side of the Great War into a "war for righteousness," an ultimate spiritual battle to rid the earth of a pagan nation that impeded the progress of God's righteous kingdom.
Soldiers of the Cross
Redemptive imagery and wars for righteousness were by no means new to the American experience in the First World War. By 1914, the American identity and sense of national mission had accumulated and synthesized a range of doctrines, ideals, and metaphors assembled from Roman antiquity, the Old and New Testaments, Enlightenment rationalism, Romantic nationalism, and evolutionary naturalism. This stock of images and language was not always compatible, internally consistent, or coherent, but it was always ready to be drawn upon, reshaped, reused, expanded, and adapted-a treasury of powerful metaphors that helped Americans define themselves, their enemies, their purpose, and their future. With surprising consistency, though to varying degrees over time and with shifting emphases, Americans have been habitually drawn to language that is redemptive, apocalyptic, and expansive. Americans have long experienced and articulated a sense of urgency, of hanging on the precipice of great change, of living in the "fifth act" of history, as poet and philosopher George Berkeley famously wrote about the emerging American empire in the eighteenth century. They have fallen easily into the Manichean habit of dividing the world into darkness and light, Evil and Good, past and future, Satan and Christ. They have seen themselves as a progressive, redemptive force, waging war in the ranks of Christ's army, or have imagined themselves even as Christ Himself, liberating those in bondage and healing the afflicted. From the time of the earliest colonial settlements, for good orill, the metaphors of the cross of Christ and of the mission of His Church have been deeply embedded in the story of the American people and their relations with the rest of the world.
The Puritans' New Israel
In many ways, America's millennial enthusiasm is as old as the voyages of Columbus. As historian Jan Willem Schulte Nordholt makes clear, the Spanish empire invested its New World expeditions with messianic hope and with anticipations of the end of history, prophetic fulfillment, the universal dominion of Christ's kingdom, and a return to paradise. These motifs are more typically associated with the United States' Puritan forebears, however, and for good reason. Nevertheless, the infusion of Europe's westward advance with millennial fervency was not exclusively The work of England's most famous refugees. The colonists who ultimately settled British North America in the seventeenth century came from a variety of doctrinal and ecclesiastical backgrounds, often disagreeing sharply about how to please God. But as fellow Christians-Protestant Christians, typically, they shared clear assumptions about the nature and Character of God, His way of working in the world, their relationship to the created order, the meaning of life, and their hope for the future. They disagreed about liturgy, translations of Scripture, ecclesiology, and the finer points of eschatology, but from the James River to Cape Cod, from the Atlantic Seaboard to the Appalachian Mountains, they entertained little doubt about God's presence and superintending purposes in the settlement of the New World. They believed in God's "special providence," as it was called, and in miracles, the righteous judgments of the moral law, the need to lead an exemplary life, the certainty of reward and punishment now and in the life to come, and the conviction that events here on earth are bound up inextricably with events in heaven. By these measures, American colonists were not notably different from the European neighbors they left behind.
Among the earliest settlers of the American wilderness, the Puritans of New England were animated by a powerful consciousness of who they were, what they had fled from, and the new world they were laboring to redeem and build for themselves and all mankind in North America. They were a people possessed by an unmistakable sense of mission and of being the objects of a divine covenant with all its attendant blessings and curses. The Puritans were set apart to be, as John Winthrop famously and enduringly labeled them, a "Citty upon a Hill" with the eyes of the world fixed upon them. God entered into a literal new covenant with a new chosen people, called out of bondage in Egypt for a particular task at a special moment in redemptive history, escaping from a modern Pharaoh and his army across a great sea. Their election was confirmed by signs and wonders, by attesting miracles of deliverance and safety and provision. They were unshakably certain of God's calling. They fled from a corrupt Europe and from an England bound in spiritual decline and apostasy. Or, to change the biblical metaphor, they were the Woman of the Book of Revelation (12: 14-17) who fled from the Dragon and escaped into the wilderness.
The new world encountered by this chosen people was envisioned as both wilderness and Promised Land, barren desert and Canaan flowing with milk and honey, a trial to be endured and a captive land to be ransomed and possessed, a Babylon and a New Jerusalem. They found a wilderness to be crossed, transformed, and redeemed, a place populated by brutes of Hell, wild beasts, heathen darkness, barbarism, and modern Amalekites. The wilderness also symbolized the ever-present humbling possibility of spiritual wandering as the penalty of backsliding, of even the elect's propensity to disobedience, sin, and rebellion like the ancient Israelites under Moses. Nevertheless, the settlers came to build a New Israel, a new Mt. Zion, a new city of Jerusalem, a realm of light, safety, peace, purity, and prosperity, of both temporal blessing and abundant anticipation of eternal reward. As historian Sacvan Bercovitch summarizes the perspective of Puritan minister John Cotton, "America ... was the new promised land, reserved by God for His new chosen people as the site for a new heaven and a new earth."
One of the most striking features of the Puritan sense of mission was its "fusion of secular and sacred history," as Bercovitch emphasizes. Whether or not these settlers intended to build a literal theocracy, they Mentally inhabited a Holy Commonwealth; their worldview generally failed to distinguish between the City of Man and the City of God. As historian Ernest Lee Tuveson observes of the Puritans in his masterful Redeemer Nation, "they considered themselves in fact as advancing to the next step beyond the Reformation-the actual reign of the spirit of Christ, the amalgamation of the City of the World into the City of God." Confident of their divine appointment, oriented toward their "errand," the Puritans fought to advance the Kingdom of Christ on Earth. Drawing habitually on the language and symbolism of the Old and New Testaments, the Puritans often portrayed themselves as soldiers of God. They were "troops of Christ's army," an invincible force marching under the leadership of their divine Captain, waging battle after battle in a campaign of conquest, expanding Christ's realm and dominion and tearing down the walls of Babylon. They were engaged in a cosmic struggle being fought on the front lines in North America between Christ's Kingdom and the kingdom of the Antichrist.
The New England Puritans believed the curtain had opened on the last act of history, the fulfillment of all promise and hope and longing in a spectacular grand finale. Their age as a whole was one of expectation, both religious and secular. Back in England, Francis Bacon had recently proclaimed in The Advancement of Learning (1605)-and repeated more explicitly in his Novum Organum (1620)-the fulfillment of Daniel's prophecy (Daniel 12:4) that "many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased." The many voyages of the Age of Exploration and the intellectual curiosity of the Scientific Revolution had realized the prophet's vision. Daniel was "clearly intimating," Bacon wrote, "that the thorough passage of the world ... and the advancement of the sciences, are destined by fate, that is, by Divine Providence, to meet in the same age." Indeed, through the power of knowledge applied to nature, the Fall of man would be reversed, his dominion restored. From the scientific method "there cannot but follow an improvement in man's estate and an enlargement of his power over nature. For man by the Fall fell at the same time from his state of innocency and from his dominion over creation. Both of these losses however can even in this life be in some part repaired; the former by religion and faith, the latter by arts and sciences."
Excerpted from The War for Righteousness by Richard M. Gamble Copyright © 2007 by Richard M. Gamble. Excerpted by permission.
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