There has prevailed in some circles since the beginning of the war in Iraq the idea that a conservative should support war and militarism. To dissent is to not be a true conservative, or even worse, to be one of those nasty liberals, or worse still, to be un-American or anti-American.
The idea is bogus, of course. When a Democrat like Bill Clinton was president, 80 percent of House Republicans voted against the Clinton-ordered bombings in the former Yugoslavia. If the “liberal” Al Gore had been elected president instead of the “conservative” George Bush, and if the “liberal” President Gore had ordered the invasion of Iraq, is there any doubt that most of the “conservatives” in Congress would have opposed him?
With the exception of Ron Paul (and perhaps a handful of others who are not as consistent), the members of Congress of both parties have no principles other than supporting their party, expanding their power, glorying in their position, and getting reelected. This lack of moral principles is true of the typical self-proclaimed conservative layman. If Bush announced today on the Limbaugh and Hannity radio shows that the invasion of Iraq was a terrible mistake, and that he was ordering all U.S. forces to cease fighting and begin withdrawing, the same “conservatives” who supported the war in Iraq for five years in order to defend our freedoms and keep us safe from terrorism would suddenly turn into opponents of the war. Any “liberals” who wanted to continue the war effort would be denounced as un-American for wanting U.S. soldiers to remain in harm’s way.
This idea that a conservative should support war and militarism is, unfortunately, held by a good number of conservative Christians as well. And perhaps even more strongly because of the religious element. When the typical conservative Christian sees liberal Christians deny the authority of Scripture and the bodily resurrection of Christ while expressing support for abortion and the ordaining of homosexuals, but also oppose war and militarism, he draws the false conclusion that it is liberal (bad) to oppose war and militarism but conservative (good) to support them.
As a conservative Christian who considers aggression, violence, and bloodshed to be contrary to the nature of Christianity, I draw a different conclusion: A broken clock is right twice a day. So what if a liberal theologian or a left-wing Hollywood actor or a leftist university professor or a Democratic congressman opposes war and militarism. Why does that make it wrong? So what if they oppose these things for different reasons than I do. At least they oppose them. So what if their opposition to war and militarism is inconsistent. At least they oppose them some of the time. I have more respect for these individuals than I do for a conservative, Christian, Republican warmonger who makes a god out of the state and its military.
The defense of war and militarism by many Evangelicals and other conservative Christians is a recent aberration. Christian history is filled with many individuals from a variety of denominations who denounced war and militarism.
According to John Cadoux, the author of the definitive investigation of the early Christian attitude toward war and military service:
The early Christians took Jesus at his word, and understood his inculcations of gentleness and non-resistance in their literal sense. They closely identified their religion with peace; they strongly condemned war for the bloodshed which it involved; they appropriated to themselves the Old Testament prophecy which foretold the transformation of the weapons of war into the implements of agriculture; they declared that it was their policy to return good for evil and to conquer evil with good.
Perhaps the most celebrated advocate of peace was the Dutch humanist Erasmus (1466—1536). He believed that the only just and necessary war was a “purely defensive” one to “repel the violence of invaders.” And because he believed that war is by “nature such a plague to man that even if it is undertaken by a just prince in a totally just cause, the wickedness of captains and soldiers results in almost more evil than good,” Erasmus insisted that “all other expedients must be tried before war is begun; no matter how serious nor how just the cause.” He chastised Christians for reproaches vomited out against Christ by nations of unbelievers “when they see his professed followers” warring “with more destructive instruments of mutual murder than pagans could ever find in their hearts to use.” “War would be understandable among the beasts,” said Erasmus, “for they lack natural reason; it is an aberration among men because the evil of war can be easily understood through the use of reason alone. War, however, is inconceivable among Christians because it is not only rationally objectionable but, even more important, ethically inadmissible.”
Hugo Grotius (1583—1645), the famed Dutch jurist, Christian apologist, theorist of natural rights, and father of international law, lamented:
Throughout the Christian world I observed a lack of restraint in relation to war, such as even barbarous races should be ashamed of; I observed that men rush to arms for slight causes, or no cause at all, and that when arms have once been taken up there is no longer any respect for law, divine or human; it is as if, in accordance with a general decree, frenzy had openly been let loose for the committing of all crimes
His masterful three-volume work of 1625, De jure belli ac pacis (On the Law of War and Peace; recently reprinted by Liberty Fund as The Rights of War and Peace), is one of the most significant writings in the just war tradition.
In his Philosophical Letters (1734), the French philosopher Voltaire (1694—1778) wrote about an encounter he had in England with a Quaker named Andrew Pitt. Said Pitt:
If we never go to war it is not because we fear death — on the contrary, we bless the moment that unites us with the Being of Beings — but it’s that we are not wolves or tigers or watchdogs, but men and Christians. Our Lord, who has commanded us to love our enemies and to endure without complaining, certainly does not wish us to cross the sea and cut the throats of our brothers because some murderers dressed in red, and wearing hats two feet high, are enlisting citizens by making a noise with two little sticks beating on the tightly stretched skin of an ass. And when, after battles won, all London glitters with lights, when the sky blazes with fireworks, and the air resounds with the noise of thanksgiving, of bells, of organs, and of cannon, we mourn in silence over these murders, the cause of public gaiety.
What the British Quaker Jonathan Dymond (1796—1828) wrote against war in his Essay on War is still relevant today:
But perhaps the most operative cause of the popularity of war, and of the facility with which we engage in it, consists in this; that an idea of glory is attached to military exploits, and of honor to the military profession. The glories of battle, and of those who perish in it, or who return in triumph to their country, are favorite topics of declamation with the historian, the biographers, and the poet. They have told us a thousands times of dying heroes, who “resign their lives amidst the joys of conquest, and, filled with their country’s glory, smile in death;” and thus every excitement that eloquence and genius can command, is employed to arouse that ambition of fame which can be gratified only at the expense of blood.
Some writers who have perceived the monstrousness of this system, have told us that a soldier should assure himself, before he engages in a war, that it is a lawful and just one; and they acknowledge that, if he does not feel this assurance, he is a “murderer.” But how is he to know that the war is just? It is frequently difficult for the people distinctly to discover what the objects of a war are. And if the soldier knew that it was just in its commencement, how is he to know that it will continue to be just in its prosecution? Every war is, in some parts of its course, wicked and unjust; and who can tell what the course will be? You say — When he discovers any injustice or wickedness, let him withdraw: we answer, he cannot; and the truth is, that there is no way of avoiding the evil, but by avoiding the army.
The British preacher Vicesimus Knox (1752—1821) was a true minister of peace. In his preface to a work of Erasmus which he translated into English, Knox said of war:
To eradicate from the bosom of man principles which argue not only obduracy, but malignity, is certainly the main scope of the Christian religion; and the clergy are never better employed in their grand work, the melioration of human nature, the improvement of general happiness, than when they are reprobating all propensities whatever, which tend, in any degree, to produce, to continue, or to aggravate the calamities of war; those calamities which, as his majesty graciously expressed it, in one of his speeches from the throne, are inseparable from a state of war.
There is nothing so heterodox, I speak under the correction of the reverend prelacy, as war, and the passions that lead to it, such as pride, avarice, and ambition. The greatest heresy I know, is to shed the blood of an innocent man, to rob by authority of a Christian government, to lay waste by law, to destroy by privilege, that which constitutes the health, the wealth, the comfort, the happiness, the sustenance of a fellow-creature, and a fellow Christian. This is heresy and schism with a vengeance!
I hope the world has profited too much by experience, to encourage any offensive war, under the name and pretext of a holy war.
Let Mahomet mark the progress of the faith by blood. Such modes of erecting the Cross are an abomination to Jesus Christ. Is it, after all, certain, that the slaughter of the unbelievers will convert the survivors to the religion of the slaughterers? Is the burning of a town, the sinking of a ship, the wounding and killing hundreds of thousands in the field, a proof of the lovely and beneficent spirit of that Christianity to which the enemy is to be converted, by the philanthropic warriors?
Another British minister of peace was the acclaimed “prince of preachers,” Charles Spurgeon (1834—1892). Throughout his sermons, one can find numerous references to Christianity and war:
The Church of Christ is continually represented under the figure of an army; yet its Captain is the Prince of Peace; its object is the establishment of peace, and its soldiers are men of a peaceful disposition. The spirit of war is at the extremely opposite point to the spirit of the gospel.
War is to our minds the most difficult thing to sanctify to God. The genius of the Christian religion is altogether contrary to everything like strife of any kind, much more to the deadly clash of arms
If there be anything which this book denounces and counts the hugest of all crimes, it is the crime of war. Put up thy sword into thy sheath, for hath not he said, “Thou shalt not kill,” and he meant not that it was a sin to kill one but a glory to kill a million, but he meant that bloodshed on the smallest or largest scale was sinful.
The American Peace Society was organized in New York in 1828 “to illustrate the inconsistency of war with Christianity, to show its baleful influence on all the great interests of mankind, and to devise means for insuring universal and permanent peace.” In 1845, this peace society published The Book of Peace: A Collection of Essays on War and Peace, a 600-page book containing sixty-four essays on war and peace. Here are some excerpts:
War is the grand impoverisher of the world. In estimating its havoc of property, we must inquire not only how much its costs, and how much it destroys, but how far it prevents the acquisition of wealth; and a full answer to these three questions would exhibit an amount of waste beyond the power of any imagination adequately to conceive.
Christianity saves men; war destroys them. Christianity elevates men; war debased and degrades them. Christianity purifies men; war corrupts and defiles them. Christianity blesses men; war curses them. God says, thou shalt not kill; war says, thou shalt kill. God says, blessed are the peace-makers; war says, blessed are the war-makers. God says, love your enemies; war says, hate them. God says, forgive men their trespasses; war says, forgive them not. God enjoins forgiveness, and forbids revenge; while war scorns the former, and commands the latter. God says, if any man smite thee on the cheek, turn to him the other also; war says, turn not the other check, but knock the smiter down. God says, bless those who curse you; bless, and curse not: war says, curse those who curse you; curse, and bless not. God says, pray for those who despitefully use you; war says, pray against them, and seek their destruction. God says, see that none render evil for evil unto any man; war says, be sure to render evil for evil unto all that injure you. God says, if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: war says, if you do supply your enemies with food and clothing, you shall be shot as a traitor. God says, do good unto all men; war says, do as much evil as you can to your enemies. God says to all men, love one another; war says, hate and kill one another. God says, they that take the sword, shall perish by the sword; war says, they that take the sword, shall be saved by the sword. God says, blessed is he that trusteth in the Lord; war says, cursed is such a man, and blessed is he who trusteth in swords and guns.
The evils arising from military preparations are greater in the whole than those that would be incurred by submission to any probably foreign demand they are designed to resist. War is more frequently caused by military preparations than it is supposed to be averted by them, both by encouraging in any nation supporting them, an arrogant bearing towards foreign nations, and by provoking the pride of those nations, by their defying appearance. Military preparations for defence are always liable to be used for purposes of aggression.
Writing in the Christian Review back in 1838, a Baptist minister explained how war contradicts the genius and intention of Christianity, sets at nought the example of Jesus, and violates all the express precepts of the New Testament:
Christianity requires us to seek to amend the condition of man. But war cannot do this. The world is no better for all the wars of five thousand years. Christianity, if it prevailed, would make the earth a paradise. War, where it prevails, makes it a slaughter-house, a den of thieves, a brothel, a hell. Christianity cancels the laws of retaliation. War is based upon that very principle. Christianity is the remedy for all human woes. War produces every woe known to man.
The causes of war, as well as war itself, are contrary to the gospel. It originates in the worst passions and the worst aims. We may always trace it to the thirst of revenge, the acquisition of territory, the monopoly of commerce, the quarrels of kings, the intrigues of ministers, the coercion of religious opinion, the acquisition of disputed crowns, or some other source, equally culpable; but never has any war, devised by man, been founded on holy tempers and Christian principles.
There is no rank or position in an army compatible with the character of Christ. It is most certain, that we gather no army lessons from him who “came to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and to comfort all that mourn.” It is most certain, that no man, who makes fighting his profession, can find authority in the example of our Lord.
It should be remembered, that in no case, even under the Old Testament, was war appointed to decide doubtful questions, or to settle quarrels, but to inflict national punishment. They were intended, as are pestilence and famine, to chastise nations guilty of provoking God. Such is never the pretext of modern war; and if it were, it would require divine authority, which, as has just been said, would induce even members of the Peace Society to fight.
Writing in the same publication just a few years later, the Baptist minister who called himself Veritatis Amans stated:
War has ever been the scourge of the human race. The history of the past is little else than a chronicle of deadly feuds, irreconcilable hate, and exterminating warfare. The extension of empire, the love of glory, and thirst for fame, have been more fatal to men than famine or pestilence, or the fiercest elements of nature. The trappings and tinsel of war, martial prowess, and military heroism, have, in all ages, been venerated and lauded to the skies. And what is more sad and painful, many of the wars whose desolating surges have deluged the earth, have been carried on in the name and under the sanction of those who profess the name of Christ.
In all cases where war has ever existed, the principles of the gospel have been violated by one or both parties. Such must always be the case in every war. Hence it must follow that if the gospel were fully obeyed, all war must cease.
The Baptist minister, economist, and educator Francis Wayland (1796—1865) considered all wars to be “contrary to the will of God,” he believed that “the individual has no right to commit to society, nor society to government, the power to declare war.” He further maintained that no one was obligated to support his government in an aggressive war. He depicted the Mexican War as “wicked, infamous, unconstitutional in design, and stupid and shockingly depraved in its management” — sentiments one might hear today about the war in Iraq.
Gerrit Smith (1797—1874) was a Christian philanthropist, publicist, orator, abolitionist, temperance advocate, and social reformer. He also briefly served as a member of Congress. Here is part of his speech against a bill making appropriation for the support of the Military Academy:
The spirit of war is the spirit of barbarism; and, notwithstanding the general impression to the contrary, war is the mightiest of all the hinderances to the progresses of civilization. But the spirit of this bill is the dark, barbarous, baleful spirit of war; and, therefore, would I use all honorable means to defeat the bill.
It is strange — it is sad — that, in a nation, professing faith in the Prince of Peace, the war spirit should be so rampant. That, in such a nation, there should be any manifestation whatever of this spirit, is grossly inconsistent.
“My voice is still for war,” are the words ascribed to a celebrated Roman. But, as he was a pagan, and lived more than two thousand years ago, it is not strange, that he was for war. But, that we, who have a more than two thousand years longer retrospect of the horrors of war than he had — that we, who, instead of but a pagan sense of right and wrong, have, or, at least, have the means of having, a Christian sense of right and wrong — that we should be for war, is, indeed, passing strange.
The revivalist, abolitionist, and educator Charles Finney (1792—1875) stated of war:
But in no case is war anything else than a most horrible crime, unless it is plainly the will of God that it should exist, and unless it be actually undertaken in obedience to his will. This is true of all, both of rulers and subjects, who engage in war. Selfish war is wholesale murder. For a nation to declare war, or for persons to enlist, or in any way designedly to aid or abet, in the declaration or prosecution of war, upon any other conditions than those just specified, involves the guilt of murder.
There can scarcely be conceived a more abominable and fiendish maxim than “my country right or wrong.” To adopt the maxim, “Our Country right or wrong,” and to sympathize with the government, in the prosecution of a war unrighteously waged, must involve the guilt of murder.
Southern Presbyterian theologian Robert Louis Dabney (1820—1898), who served as a Confederate Army chaplain and chief of staff to Stonewall Jackson, believed that “war should be only defensive. As soon as the invader is disarmed, his life should be spared; especially as individual invaders are usually private subjects of the invading sovereign, who have little option about their own acts as private soldiers.” He considered defensive war to be “righteous, and only defensive war.” Aggressive war “is wholesale robbery and murder.”
David Lipscomb (1831—1917), the namesake of Lipscomb University, was a Church of Christ minister and magazine editor who believed that violence and warfare were incompatible with Christianity:
Christ disavows the earthly character of his kingdom; declares that it is of a nature so different from all worldly kingdoms, that his servants could not fight for his kingdom; if they could not fight for his kingdom, they could not fight for any kingdom, hence in this respect could not be members and supporters of the earthly kingdoms.
[Christ] had plainly declared that his children could not fight with carnal weapons even for the establishment of his own Kingdom. Much less could they slay and destroy one another in the contentions and strivings of the kingdoms of this world. It took but little thought to see that Christians cannot fight, cannot slay one another or their fellowmen, at the behest of any earthly ruler, or to establish or maintain any human government.
Although many Christians became apologists for the state during World War I, there were a few Elijahs who refused to do the state’s bidding.
Before the United States entered the war, Frank Crane, a minister turned newspaper columnist, claimed that “an intelligent, twentieth-century democratic Christian should refuse to go to war.” He remarked that the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” not only restrained the Christian from harming his neighbors, it also prevented him from violence against his country’s neighbors. He considered war “the greatest conceivable crime.” Participating in war constituted “the deepest possible offense toward Almighty God.”
Episcopal bishop Paul Jones was another voice for peace:
As I love my country, I must protest against her doing what I would not do myself because it is contrary to our Lord’s teaching. To prosecute war means to kill men, bring sorrow and suffering upon women and children. . . . No matter what principles may appear to be at stake, to deliberately engage in such a course of action that evidently is unchristian is repugnant to the whole spirit of the gospel.
Jones was forced to resign.
Paul Harris Drake, minister of Christ Church in Dorchester, Massachusetts, was scheduled to preach on “The Conscientious Objector” at the Sunday morning service on June 3, 1917. His church board barred him from the pulpit. His prepared statement to the board was the following:
“War is hell,” and hell has no place in the human order of things than in the Divine order. If I, as a minister of God, am unable to believe in a hell hereafter, I certainly cannot bring myself to believe in the wisdom or righteousness of a hell here and now. . . . War orators may sing the praises of America with her hands red with the blood of my fellow-men — but I shall not!
He was also forced to resign.
Charles Fletcher Dole, a retired minister, was part of the Association for the Abolition of War. He believed that killing Germans was wrong — “just as wrong if we kill millions of them in war as if we murdered them one by one with pistols and knives. Furthermore it can accomplish no possible good for France, or Britain, or ourselves, or the world; but only evil, evil, evil to everybody.”
Henry Winn Pinkham, a Unitarian minister, replying to George Gordon of the Old South Church of Boston in 1917, asked the question: “Did Jesus kill anybody in order to redeem the world?” He further stated:
Somehow, it does not seem easy to conceive the Savior as the inspirer, helper and friend of the soldier as he rushes to stick his bayonet into the guts of a brother man. Somehow the Christian heart shudders — mine does at any rate, if not Dr. Gordon’s — at the thought of Jesus clad in khaki, with a bomb in his hand, or turning the crank of a machine-gun to spatter wounds and death among his fellow men.
Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878—1969), the pastor of Riverside Church in New York City, lamented the initial Christian support of World War I:
When the Great War broke the churches were unprepared to take a well-considered Christian attitude. We too were hypnotized by nationalism. We had made ourselves part and parcel of social attitudes from whose inevitable consequence we felt it immoral to withdraw. For my part, I never will be caught that way again. I hope the churches never will be caught that way. If, however, when the next crisis comes, we are going to protest effectively against war, we must win the right to make that protest, and we must win it now. Today we must make unmistakably clear our position against war.
War is utterly and irremediable unchristian. It is a more blatant denial of every Christian doctrine about God and man than all the theoretical atheists on earth could devise. What I do see is that the quarrels between fundamentalists and liberals, high churchmen, broad churchmen, and low churchmen are tithing, mint, anise and cumin if the Church does not deal with this supreme moral issue of our time: Christ against war.
Although Fosdick was a modernist on the wrong side of the liberal/fundamentalist debate of his day, there was one of his theological opponents who stood with him on the subject of war.
Writing before and during World War I, the conservative Presbyterian New Testament scholar J. Gresham Machen (1881—1937) opposed imperialism, militarism, and conscription:
Imperialism, to my mind, is satanic, whether it is German or English.
Princeton is a hot-bed of patriotic enthusiasm and military ardor, which makes me feel like a man without a country.
The enormous lists of casualties impresses me, as nothing else has, with the destructiveness of the war.
Compulsory military service does not merely bring a danger of militarism; it is militarism. To adopt it in this country would mean that no matter how this war results we are conquered already; the hope of peace and a better day would no longer be present to sustain us in the present struggle, but there would be only the miserable prospect of the continuance of the evils of war even into peace times.
After the Great War, G. J. Heering, a theology professor in Holland and president of the International Union of Anti-Militarist Ministers and Clergymen, pulled no punches in his book The Fall of Christianity: A Study of Christianity the State and War (Dutch, 1928; English, 1930):
Primitive Christianity felt instinctively that war is in complete conflict with the living values of the Gospel, with the spirit of Christ; in short, with Christian principle. After long centuries which have not been without their heroic attempts to bring to light this ancient opposition, after much mischief and especially after much shame, the Christianity of our own days, alarmed by the development of war technique, begins to notice that its alliance with the State — an alliance necessary but too close — and its consequent compromise with war have led Christianity itself, and State and people, along the highroad to destruction. Christianity begins to realize that war lets loose all the demons that Christ came to fight, that there can be no greater hindrance to the coming of God’s Kingdom than war, and that the man who takes part in war is brought into a condition in which he cannot possibly pray, “Our Father.” The Christianity of our day is beginning to realize (still very weakly, but at least in it is beginning) that it is called to take up its stand with all the power of its faith and with absolute condemnation of the whole practice and preparation of war.
Those for whom war is a crime against humanity and sin against God are sometimes asked to moderate themselves, and not use such “strong words” as “crime” and “sin.” But if these words express exactly what the speaker means, and what is laid upon him irresistibly by his moral and spiritual judgment, whose is the right to reproach him?
First and foremost, organized Christianity must make downright protest against all war and all preparations therefore, as completely opposed to Christian principle.
What moral right has the Church to exist, if it allows preparation for that war to go on, even in its own land, without the most obstinate protest and opposition? What right is left to her to go on calling herself “the Church of Christ,” if she yet again makes common cause with the forces of war and tacitly gives them her sanction?
He concludes that “war causes the State to fail in the fulfillment of its duties; that it has become intolerable to the moral sense of many Christians, and that the attempts to justify war cannot stand their ground in the face of moral and rational judgment.” Indeed, war and its preparation is “the greatest of all blasphemies, one which desecrates the Names of God and Christ a thousand times more than all breaches of the Sabbath.”
Back before they sold out to the Republican Party, the Southern Baptists issued a number of official statements expressing their opposition to war and militarism:
We oppose the continued large expenditure by the Government for military and naval equipment; that we oppose military training in the schools and colleges, whether denominational or state; and that we favor full and complete disarmament as rapidly as it can possibly be accomplished, except such armament as may be absolutely necessary for police duty within our own territory and on our borders. Moreover, we reaffirm our hearty approval of the international agreement to renounce war as a national policy and our gratitude at the growing conviction among Christians of the incompatibility of war with the ethical principles of our Lord Jesus Christ.
We reaffirm also our utter opposition to and hatred of war as the most inexcusable and insane policy that could be pursued by the nations of the earth in their dealings with one another, destructive not only of human life and treasure but of all that is high and worthy in human ideals and objectives.
We pledge ourselves as citizens and Christians that we will not support our government in any war except such as might be necessary to repel invasion of our land or to preserve fundamental human rights and liberties.
There is nothing “liberal” about opposition to war. There is nothing “anti-American” about opposition to militarism. And what could be more Christian than standing firmly against aggression, violence, and bloodshed?
There are today a growing number of conservative Christians who vehemently repudiate Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the warfare state, the militarization of society, the U.S. empire of troops and bases that encircles the globe, and the imperialistic foreign policy that put them there. Are you one of them or are you a Christian warmonger?
For a collection of anti-war writings from a primarily secular point of view, see the new book by Thomas Woods and Murray Polner, We Who Dared to Say No to War (Basic Books, 2008).