By Mark Tooley, Providence Magazine.
Seventy-four years ago, Reinhold Niebuhr launched his Christianity and Crisis magazine to awaken American Protestants from pacifism, utopianism, isolationism, neutralism, and delusions about abstaining from the war that was engulfing the world. In what he described as the “first effective revolution against Christian civilization since the days of Constantine,” Britain then stood alone against Nazi-dominated Europe, while militarist Japan dominated much of Asia. Niebuhr succinctly explained the journal’s purpose:
In the presence of the crisis the editors of this journal feel that as Christian citizens the least they can do is to advocate a policy on the part of the government of the United States of giving those who fight for freedom all the aid that it is in our power as a nation to give.
Himself previously a pacifist, Niebuhr, in early 1941 as totalitarianism swirled against the shrinking community of free nations, was impatient with his formerly kindred spirits who insisted Christianity was incompatible with violence, even in defense of innocents against monstrous aggressors. He observed with great alarm:
The tragic irony of the hour is that so many of the men in America whom this revolution against Christian civilization most concerns seem to be least aware of its implications. The freedom of these men to speak and write depends upon the existence of a certain type of civilization. Yet they talk and act as if they believed that, whoever wins, religion-as-usual like business-as-usual will be the order of the day in America after the war. The fact is that if Hitler carries out his declared designs there is not going to be any religion-as-usual, at least as far as Christians are concerned.
Niebuhr was unsparing in his critique:
The choice before us is clear. Those who choose to exist like parasites on the liberties which others fight to secure for them will end by betraying the Christian ethic and the civilization which has developed out of that ethic.
And Niebuhr implored his fellow Protestant clergy, as citizens, to lead in informing their flocks of the crisis before them and the moral urgency of placing the “full resources of America at the disposal of the soldiers of freedom.” Christianity and Crisis would spend the next decade urging American Christianity to fulfill its temporal duties by thoughtfully and resolutely supporting resistance to the Axis powers and later the Soviet Bloc in defense of justice, liberty, and the witness to truth.
The challenge for Niebuhr was an American Protestantism that, after its zealous patriotic exertions during World War I, had retreated into two decades of Social Gospel somnolence. The churches, with Prohibition and later on a larger scale with the New Deal, demanded that the government assume ever greater responsibilities for domestic social justice while increasingly rejecting the state’s primary God-ordained obligation to defend and protect its people.