In a short time the world will once again celebrate Christmas. We evangelicals are traditionally excited about this season, since it celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, the man whose teaching and example we profess to honor and love.
But our testimony rests on an inherent contradiction. Even though we claim to be followers of the Prince of Peace surveys and polls consistently show that evangelical Christians constitute the most militant demographic in American society.
Revealingly, evangelical militancy is not a new phenomenon. Evangelical zest for international warfare can be traced at least to the Spanish-American War of 1898. One of the early instances of American interventionism that military adventure was widely supported by evangelical churches and leaders. The famed Josiah Strong, the popular leader of the Social Gospel Movement, was one of the many ministers of the time who incited militarism among the faithful by giving sermons in which he provided theological justification for American interference on the Cuban island.
Next came the Philippine-American War which was sparked by the refusal of the US government to grant independence to the Philippines, an American territorial possession at the time. The Filipino people rebelled and the result was a brutal and protracted conflict in the course of which US forces committed depredations and atrocities on a massive scale. Some historians estimate that nearly one million Filipinos perished during the war. If this figure is correct, the death toll claimed more than ten per cent of the whole population. In any case, the actions of the US military on the island could only be described as genocidal. Given all this, it is hard to believe that American followers of the Prince of Peace would support such a murderous undertaking. But torture, death and terror notwithstanding, American churches gave the war their passionate support. The deplorably un-Christlike attitude of the Christians of the time was masterfully captured by Mark Twain in The War Prayer, one of the most powerful antiwar stories ever written.
Hardly a dozen years after the conclusion of the brutal Philippine campaign the first shots were fired in what was to become World War I. American evangelical Christians once again wasted no time in jumping into the fray. Billy Sunday – the most famous and popular American evangelist of the time – traveled up and down the country beating the war drum with great vigor and fervor. Sunday stumped for recruitment, urged the faithful to keep purchasing war bonds and raised large quantities of money.
His patriotic vehemence notwithstanding, Sunday never explained what exactly America’s interests were in jumping into the middle of that far away and bewildering conflict which produced over 100,000 American dead. Needless to say, America’s involvement was in direct contravention to the warnings of the Founding Fathers who repeatedly cautioned against military engagement in foreign lands and especially in Europe.
To make matters worse, the high-handed attitude of President Woodrow Wilson at the postwar negotiations resulted in the imposition of harrowing terms on defeated Germany that ultimately led to the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the subsequent rise of Adolf Hitler. As they say, the rest is history which tells us that between fifty to eighty million lives were lost in the ensuing war. American evangelicals have never acknowledged their contribution to this unfortunate course of events. But this is hardly surprising, since evangelicals seem to be congenitally unable to express regret even when presented with the disastrous consequences of their actions.
The Vietnam War offered another flagrant instance of evangelical militarism. In 1965, when the American people were beginning to increasingly call into question the Vietnam campaign, Christianity Today, the flagship publication of evangelical Christianity, published an editorial praising President Johnson and celebrating the military might of the United States. The piece naively called Johnson a “brave soldier” who was only doing what was just and right. The editorial’s writer apparently suspected no ulterior motives or incompetence on the part of the US government.
Even as the scope of the Vietnam tragedy was becoming painfully obvious, Billy James Hargis, a prominent minister, used his nationally broadcast program to call for greater military involvement in Southeast Asia. Hargis relentlessly exploited his popular show, which was carried on more than 500 radio stations across America, to advance an aggressive pro-war stance. He even went so far as to accuse Christians who refused to take a hardline position of being communist sympathizers.
Hargis and other evangelical leaders claimed that a communist triumph in Vietnam would bring about a domino effect that would lead to the spread of communism not only in Southeast Asia but eventually around the globe. They saw the conflict as a struggle between good and evil in which our troops were the righteous soldiers of Christ.
Today it is widely acknowledged that America’s military involvement in Vietnam constitutes one of the most tragic chapters in the nation’s history. The United States did not achieve its objectives and suffered a painful defeat. Nearly sixty thousand soldiers died and many more were injured in addition to the millions of Vietnamese who perished in the conflict.
The domino effect the evangelicals warned about never materialized. Asia did not fall into Soviet hands and the world was not taken over by the forces of communist darkness. America was, however, shaken to the core by deep internal divisions over the senseless war. It is a great paradox that by their support of an invasion in a distant part of the globe American evangelicals nearly brought to its knees the very society which they sought to protect from outside danger.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are two recent glaring instances in the long history of evangelical belligerency. On March 11, 2003, Bob Jones III, President of Bob Jones University, came on Larry King Live where he repeatedly urged military action against Iraq: “Sometimes war is the price to pay for peace… war is something that the world has always known and always will be known.” The university over which Jones presided at the time is considered one of the educational powerhouses of evangelical Christianity and defines its purpose as “educating the whole person to reflect and serve Christ. ”
“God is Pro-War,” asserted Jerry Falwell in the title of an article he authored in January 2004. A powerful voice in the Christian community, Falwell was the founder of the Moral Majority, an organization that for years served as the largest political lobby group for evangelical Christians.
Jones and Falwell were not the only highly influential evangelical leaders zealous for war. “We should offer to serve the war effort in any way possible,” said Charles Stanley at about the same time. A former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Stanley added, “God battles with people who oppose him, who fight against him and his followers.” His remarks were addressed not only to his congregation in the First Baptist Church of Atlanta, but also to millions of television viewers across the United States who regularly watch his sermons.
Such messages resonated with the faithful. A Pew poll taken in April 2003 found that 87 percent of white American evangelicals supported the invasion of Iraq. This level of support was almost ten percentage points above that of the general population.
Even though we evangelicals are convinced that we have the approval and sanction of God our belligerence and militarism rarely appear to receive His blessings. Most of the wars we have so zealously supported plainly failed to achieve their declared objectives. Some, like Vietnam, were outright failures while others, like WWI and the 1st Iraq War, set the stage for subsequent bloody conflicts.
Sadly, American evangelicals have never shown much compassion for the suffering of the victims of their aggression. When was the last time you have heard of an evangelical church holding a vigil or conducting a collection for the women and children killed by American arms in Afghanistan or Iraq? Should not evangelicals be the first ones to show compassion toward all peoples? Are we not all equal in God’s sight? Is not an Afghani child shot dead by an American soldier as precious in the Father’s eyes as a GI killed by a roadside bomb? Yet evangelicals bemoan and praise every dead GI as a fallen hero while not giving a second thought to the thousands of innocent children and women killed by America’s military machine.
Refusing to learn from the destruction and suffering they have caused, evangelicals aggressively lobby for further wars in the Middle Mast. Ever eager for confrontation, they would like their government to attack Syria and Iran among others. But they fail to ask, for example, how we would fare in Iran, a country that would be far more difficult to conquer and control than Iraq ever was.
The Middle East, however, is not the only region that the evangelicals would like to turn into a battlefield. Lately, Russia has been another target in their sights. Less than three weeks ago, Republican presidential candidate and evangelical darling Ben Carson said he would shoot down Russian planes in a no-fly zone of his designation. “You shoot them down, absolutely,” he declared. “Whatever happens next, we deal with it,” he added. This earned him loud cheers from his evangelical supporters who, however, did not bother to inquire how we would do in an open conflict with a nuclear Russia given that we could not even have our way in Afghanistan, a country defended by riffle-armed tribesmen.
American evangelicals claim to carry the light of Christ’s light in this dark and fallen world. But what if the world judged Christ’s character by the actions of his evangelical adherents? What image would they form of him? They would surely have to think of him as a God of war, a violent and cruel man eager to unleash violence, death and destruction at the slightest provocation or even without any provocation at all.
So my challenge to my evangelical brethren is this: Let us stand as a better example of Christ and honor his birthday by refraining from warmongering during this festive Christmas season.
Can we reach deep enough into our reserves of Christian self-restraint and forbearance to be able to do this for at least a couple of weeks?
May goodwill and peace be upon the world during this festive time and also thereafter. And may Christ’s followers be a little bit more like Him in their love and compassion for all people.
This I pray in the name of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace.
Vasko Kohlmayer is a reformed neocon. His articles have appeared in a number of newspapers, journals and internet outlets. They include the Baltimore Sun, the Washington Times, the New York Sun, LewRockwell.com, Human Events, Frontpage Magazine, American Thinker, the Jewish Press, the Austin American-Statesman, Canada Free Press, RealClearPolitics, and Intellectual Conservative among others. You can email Vasko.