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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Plea from the past

A call for spiritual strength in 1940 offers a lesson for today's appeasers

Issue: "Fighting poverty," March 13, 2010

To get a sense of how far, and for how long, liberal elites have strayed from America's bedrock moral and religious propositions, find a copy of Fortune magazine, circa 1940. An editorial in January of that year-the year of the Nazi Blitzkrieg in Europe-complained of a "declining emphasis on spiritual values."

Yes, the editors of this icon of free-market capitalism lamented a drift away from the transcendent truths that helped bring American democracy into being. Even more remarkable, Fortune's lay prophets directed their anger at the nation's religious leadership. "We are asked to turn to the Church for our enlightenment," they wrote, "but when we do so we find that the voice of the Church today is the echo our own voices."

The issue at hand was the reflexive, militant pacifism of liberal Christianity during the 1930s-at the very moment when political pacifism was emboldening international terrorism and fascist aggression. Contemporary liberals, especially those who claim the moral high ground of the gospel, might recognize their spiritual godfathers in this withering critique of flaccid Christianity.

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Fortune's editors took aim at the emotional pendulum swing of church leaders following the Great War. Ministers by the thousands had blessed the conflict as a holy crusade. But the horror of trench warfare, the flawed Treaty of Versailles, the failure of the League of Nations to keep the peace-all of this sent many believers into a psychopathic gloom. A 1931 survey of 20,000 clergymen found that 54 percent would not sanction "any future war or participate as an armed combatant." Nearly half refused to serve as military chaplains. Pacifism became the cherished doctrine of liberal Christianity.

By the late 1930s, the political consequences of this new dogma were disastrous. Ministers rationalized German re-armament, cheered the betrayal of Czechoslovakia at Munich, downplayed Hitler's vicious anti-Semitism, and claimed that America's hands were too soiled to defend democracy outside its own borders.

The editors at Fortune could see nothing principled in this position-no matter how much it was dressed up in religious language. They took it as evidence of spiritual corruption: "So long as the Church pretends or assumes to preach absolute values but actually preaches relative and secondary values, it will merely hasten this process of disintegration."

It is difficult to read these words and not think of today's religious left and its strident opposition to America's war on radical Islam. Most of their criticisms parrot every half-truth, slander, and mindless slogan from the secular political left. Like the ministers of the 1930s, they obsess over America's shortcomings. They refuse to admit any positive results from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They pretend that Islamic radicalism is a valid political protest movement, a child of U.S. foreign policy, and that it can be mollified through clever diplomacy.

Their posture is epitomized by the Rev. Jim Wallis and Sojourners magazine, which, shortly after the terrorist attack of 9/11, produced a manifesto called "Confessing Christ in a World of Violence." The document, signed by scores of church leaders, rejected the "crude distinctions" being made between Islamic radicalism and Western democracy. Even as human remains were still being recovered from Ground Zero, theologian Stanley Hauerwas saw a t­errible day of reckoning ahead: "I think that when America isn't able to rule the world, that people will exact some very strong judgments against America-and I think we will well deserve it."

These are the voices of the disillusioned. To them, American democracy is a moral ruin. American capitalism is a wretched offense to the ethics of Jesus. And U.S. foreign policy is the most fearsome threat to global peace and security. Pacifism is their policy.

Despite the pious talk of the religious left, their prescriptions depend more on secular values-on a utopian view of human societies-than on biblical values. Like their predecessors, they are on a dead-end street called appeasement. The editors of Fortune offered a way out of this spiritual abyss: "The way out is the sound of a voice, not our own voice, but a voice coming from something not ourselves. . . . It is the earthly task of the pastors to hear this voice, to cause us to hear it, and to tell us what it says. If they cannot hear it, or if they fail to tell us, we, as laymen, are utterly lost."
-Joe Loconte is the editor of The End of Illusions: Religious Leaders Confront Hitler's Gathering Storm

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