Mark Tooley: Religious Isolationism and Pearl Harbor





Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Taking Back the United Methodist Church.

In the American psyche there's never been an event like Pearl Harbor, 70 years ago this week. Of course, 9/11 comes closest, but it followed decades of America's strategic involvement in the world as a superpower, including the Cold War, Korea, Vietnam, and later the Persian Gulf War and Balkans' conflicts, among others.

Pearl Harbor followed two decades of virtual U.S. strategic isolation from most of the world's great conflicts. Most Americans had recoiled from World War I by firmly adhering to isolationism, non-interventionism, pacifism, or various combinations of all three. Clergy of the dominant Mainline Protestant churches, post-WWI, flocked to pacifism, reinforced by the liberal, utopian, "Social Gospel" theology then ascendant in the churches. A 1931 survey showed 54 percent of nearly 20,000 clergy rejecting war. A 1934 survey showed nearly 70 percent doing the same, with Methodists the most pacifist.

Methodism was then America's largest Protestant denomination and closely followed this trend. After enthusiastically backing WWI, the church in 1924 declared war the "supreme enemy," while insisting "selfish nationalism, economic imperialism, and militarism must cease." Methodist bishops visiting President Calvin Coolidge in 1926 urged "avoiding military alliances of a political and military character." In 1928 the church renounced "war as an instrument of national policy." 

A prominent dissenter to Methodism's increasing pacifism in the 1920s wondered if Britain's hypothetical intervention on behalf of massacred Armenians under the Turks might be a "high act of ethical devotion." This clergy also suggested "to allow atheistic Russia to overthrow American civilization would be a worse crime than war." But this view was in the minority for church elites. In 1936 Methodism declared it did "not endorse, support, or purpose to participate in war." The bishops confidently asserted that any objector to the church's anti-war stance had "none other refuge" within Protestantism....



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