Distributed February 13, 2003
Op-Ed Editor: Mark Nickel
History lessons about God and war
America’s past crusades offer three great lessons about God and arms. First, remember humility. Second, wartime anxieties spill over to domestic suspects. Finally, fighting for our ideals abroad can remind us to take them more seriously at home.
In most countries, wars are about power and self-interest. Not for us. Americans see war as an epic struggle between good and evil. Our leaders always hear God calling the nation “to defend the hopes of all mankind,” as President Bush recently put it.
Is the moral impulse a good thing? Sometimes. Turning complex geopolitics into black and white rallies the nation, but it leaves little room for compromise – or for mercy.
The very first American conflict illustrates the danger. In 1630, Gov. John Winthrop planted a great Biblical aspiration on American soil: “We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.” The colonists promptly launched a war against Indian “devil worshippers.” In the decisive battle, a Puritan militia set fire to the Pequot village at Fort Mystic and killed hundreds of men and women as they ran from the flames. The bodies of so many “frying in the fire,” wrote William Bradford, “seemed a sweet sacrifice to God.” The Indian conflicts also shook up colonial society – wartime anxieties led straight to witch hunts.
But moral urges also inspire America’s proudest moments. During the 1760s, a fiery religious revival swept the colonies. The people soon turned their born-again fervor against the crown and fought for “the sacred cause of liberty.” This time, American faith produced a Declaration of Independence that changed the world.
A century later, Americans pitched into the most Biblical war in modern history. Harriet Beecher Stowe modeled her Uncle Tom on Jesus Christ. Julia Ward Howe, sitting in a Union camp, reworked the Book of Revelation into a “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” President Abraham Lincoln, drawing heavily on the New Testament (especially Matthew) preached a great sermon for his second inaugural: “If God wills that the war continue until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword” so “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” In this war, both sides constantly claimed God for their side.
World War I brought a more ambivalent moral fervor. America would “show the world a new and heretofore unheard of motive in warfare,” declared President Woodrow Wilson. Righteous armies would make the world safe for democracy. The War Department organized “moral zones” around military camps – no liquor and no women. (It didn’t work – one out of eight boys contracted syphilis.) The great crusade abroad led to an audacious moral experiment back home – Prohibition.
World War II and the Cold War were simpler. If Nazis were not evil, what is? And communism, declared Life magazine in 1957, is nothing less than “Satan in action.” Americans inserted “under God” into their pledge of allegiance and stamped “In God we Trust” on international postage stamps.
The conflict unleashed a complicated reaction back home. Cold War anxiety set off a great witch hunt against communists, subversives and gays (“the pinks and lavenders,” sneered Sen. Joe McCarthy). At the same time, the Cold War proved an indispensable backdrop for the civil rights movement. Public officials constantly worried how segregation looked to a world poised between American freedom and Communist propaganda. Once again, saving the world made Americans reexamine their own society – for better and for worse.
Today, as Americans gear up for another war, many believe heaven remains on our side. “Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war,” said President Bush, “and we know that God is not neutral between them.”
Our past crusades offer us three great lessons about God and arms. First, remember humility; in hindsight, our righteous causes sometimes look like partisan slaughters. Second, as we organize homeland security, we ought to recall how past wars repeatedly led to witch hunts. Wartime anxieties spilled over to domestic suspects – with no time for formalities like “innocent till proven guilty.”
Finally, fighting for our ideals abroad can remind us to take them more seriously at home. Wars return us to our own unfinished business – fighting poverty, curbing injustice and reining in our inequalities. After all, what is special about America is not our wealth or power but our transcendent ideals. When the eyes of all people fall upon us, they ought to see a nation deeply committed to social justice for all its citizens.