Christianity, Warfare, and American National Identity: An Interview with Benjamin Wetzel

In this post I am interviewing Benjamin Wetzel, assistant professor of history at Taylor University, about his new book American Crusade: Christianity, Warfare, and National Identity, 1860–1920 (Cornell University Press).

[TK] Your book is timely, given the vigorous and acrimonious debate in recent years about “Christian nationalism.” What does your perspective on the decades from the Civil War to World War I illuminate about the history of Christian nationalism?

[BW] First of all, thank you for the opportunity to talk about the book. I’ve been a TGC reader for a long time and a beneficiary of its great content. In terms of Christian nationalism, the book shows that the phenomenon is nothing new. Like most things, it has a deep history. The book also shows that wartime is a stimulant for this kind of thinking.

When young Americans are fighting and dying, it can be very tempting to suppose that God has blessed their cause and that their enemies are not only misguided but also demonic. Nevertheless, it is still a temptation and that temptation is to nothing less than idolatry. One of the main lessons I hope Christians take away from the book is the distinction between (in Augustine’s categories) the City of God and the City of Man. As great as it is to live in the United States, we are still a secular nation, not the Kingdom of God.

From 1860 to 1920 it was progressive, elite, and northern pastors who adopted some of the most uncritical views of America’s righteousness in wartime. Why was that?

That is an interesting question, because it is the opposite of what we would suspect today. But in this period, progressive, elite, and northern pastors had a particularly deep commitment to Protestant American civilization. They believed that the United States stood for democracy, liberty, constant improvement, and the most up-do-date (read: liberal) Christianity. Some ministers applied messianic prophecies directly to the United States!

By contrast, other nations like Spain in 1898 and Germany in 1917 were “backward,” autocratic, and (in Spain’s case) Catholic. Therefore, these ministers just knew that the United States was fighting for the right and fighting on God’s side. Some of the more progressive theology that emphasized the spirit of the Bible instead of its inerrancy or historicity also allowed these pastors to think of Christian morality, democracy, and America as all one and the same.

You also speak about groups who offered a “counterpoint” to the establishment white pastors. What sorts of denominations were likely to take a different, more critical view of America’s national purposes?

In addition to the white Protestant liberals mentioned above, my book also pays attention to how the African Methodist Episcopal Church understood the Civil War, how American Catholics analyzed the Spanish-American War, and how conservative, German-speaking Lutherans in Missouri interpreted World War I. Because of their particular theological commitments and their position on the margins of American religious life, these three groups were able to offer (in my judgment) a more sophisticated understanding of the United States and its wars.

All of them saw more clearly the problems in American life, all of them rejected the idea of the United States as a Christian nation, and, consequently, all of them supported the various wars in a more restrained way. They cheered American victories without supposing that God uniquely blessed the United States or that all American soldiers went to heaven.

Some readers might be surprised at how many leading “Social Gospel” figures, such as the Congregationalist pastor Washington Gladden, argued for the Spanish-American War (1898) and World War I on Social Gospel grounds, portraying them as “Christian wars.” How did that make sense to them?

The Social Gospelers’ goal was to reform the United States so that it looked more and more like the Kingdom of God. But these pastors and theologians didn’t stop there: they simply applied that same logic to world affairs. In their thinking, Spain and its empire was corrupt and despotic; American military victory would thus bring enlightenment and Protestant civilization to colonies like the Philippines. Germany was aggressive and monarchical; American victory in World War I would cleanse Germany of corruption and would be for the good of the German people.

We might think of warfare as an odd means of Christianizing the world, but they thought it could be a divine method. World War I, after all, was the “war to end all wars”—it was going to usher in a new era of peace. When that did not happen, a number of important Christian leaders like Harry Emerson Fosdick and Reinhold Niebuhr rejected the Social Gospel/warfare blend that had energized their support for the Great War. Niebuhr was especially profound when he wrote in 1928 that “if Christianity is to be killed in this new world of nationalism and commercialism, it would be better for it to die splendidly than to survive by adding the odor of an old sanctity to the worship of mammon and Caesar.”

One temptation during wartime is presenting American soldiers as uniquely Christlike figures, ones who must go to heaven if they die in the nation’s service. How did pastors bolster, or critique, this image of soldiers almost as automatic Christians?

This issue was one of the flashpoints between some of the mainline Protestant churches and the “counterpoint” groups. During the Civil War, the New York Congregationalist Henry Ward Beecher had allegedly preached a sermon where he suggested that Union soldiers would go straight to heaven because they died in a godly cause. However, even though African American Methodists had more reason than Beecher to hope for Union victory, they protested against such idolatry. They worried that Beecher had forgotten that only “the great atoning sacrifice and the new birth” could secure salvation. In this case, their more conservative theology allowed them to push back against the dangerous blending of God and country.

Conservative Protestants could be Christian nationalists too—Billy Sunday once stated that “if you turn hell upside down, you will find ‘Made in Germany’ stamped on the bottom.” But I think their record was a little better partly because they still held on to supernaturalist distinctives that made them hesitate to completely identify any earthly cause with the Christian cause.