America and Veteran's Day: Is God on Our Side?

Veteran's Day is Nov. 11. The United States is again at war. Nov. 11 originally commemorated Armistice Day, the end of World War I. This war marked the beginning of America's military commitment to a troubled world beyond its borders. The holiday might give us an opportunity to reflect, to consider how we may search for peace. But during World War I, many more Americans searched for war.

It seems incongruous to the mind at peace that religion and spirituality could be tied so closely to violence and brutality. But the mind at peace cannot truly comprehend what it was like to be part of a war on a planetary scale. Anguish, incomprehension, profound shock as death swirled through society like an malevolent, man-made hurricane--the victims at the front and at home could only look desperately for touchstones, some way to make sense of it all on a personal level. One possibility was God.

Every country during World War I evoked God as a guiding force in battle. "God with us" was translated as necessary; German soldiers even inscribed it onto belts and helmets, Gott mit uns. It was said that during a battle even atheists prayed, and from the indescribable horror of the fetid trenches the prayers grew together no matter what the belief, or non-belief, of the soldiers who voiced them. Christians who might not have even spoken to Jews, or even Catholics to Protestants, and none of them speaking to atheists, forgot their pre-war prejudice in their quest for spirituality facing a common enemy. In the German army, the ever-oppressed Jewish soldiers fared considerably better than before. They were even allowed to be officers. That 12,000 German Jews died in World War I tragically did not help them avoid becoming the post-war scapegoat of Nazi Germany. But during World War I spirituality was patriotism, and patriotism was spirituality. Both were required of soldiers who hoped to cling to sanity as the world shattered around them, literally.

A spiritual quest

The idea that the war was a spiritual quest sustained not only the soldier in battle, but the loved ones on the home front. The deep distress of watching young sons and spouses torn away from their homes into a cauldron from which many, many would not return too often could turn to grief as parents received the news they so dreaded. The soldiers were young. Children are not supposed to die before their parents. It is not the natural order of things. To give death a point every society during the war created a spiritual quest, an affirmation that their sons had died for values so lofty they defined civilization itself. Spirituality, perhaps tied to a religion but not necessarily, became infused with patriotic virtue, love of country. To defend homeland, family, and values was not only a duty, but a privilege. Noted conservative French author Maurice Barres in 1916, "The soldiers will tell future astonished generations that they never lived their faith better and that it was never of greater support than when they were upholding the union." He spoke for the French, but could have just as easily spoke for the Americans, the Germans, or any other soldiers during this war. Some religious leaders extolled the war as an opportunity to return to purity, to basic virtues so long tainted and tarnished by the greed and secularism of modern life. War, indeed, could resemble the purifying experience of the baptismal font. "Baptism of fire" was more than a cliche.

The sweep of spiritualism sometimes beyond the boundary of particular religion served a challenge to church leaders. On the one hand, dominant religions in the west, particularly Christianity, were not bound by national borders. Lutherans worshipped in Germany as they did in America. Catholics recognize no spiritual leader but the Roman pope. And all religious leaders preached the virtues of peace and reconciliation with one's enemies. Could Jesus the peacemaker support war? Could Jesus the savior advocate the patriotic virtue of hatred, the moral virtue of sacrifice not for one's soul but for one's government?

The power of the churches

On the other hand, organized churches represented establishment values and sometimes political power. Even France, which had separated religion and state only a decade before in a bitter struggle, recognized that the Catholic hierarchy still wielded moral power over its many devout churched. The responsibility of a pastor to his faith clashed with responsibility to his congregation. Believers caught up in the emotional combine of spiritualism and patriotism expected their church fathers to lead the way as they did in all important areas of their lives. Moreover, they expected their pastors to offer comfort as they grieved loss of loved ones on the battlefields. Priests and ministers could not see how they could offer consolation without affirming that these young men had died for a cause greater than themselves, greater than a material world, a cause no less than the saving of God's people and the civilized world.

Most did that. Sermons not only accurately reflected secular sentiment, but sometimes even went further, advocating "kill, kill, kill the enemy" in fiery pulpit style. The war became a sacred duty of the righteous against the infidel--a crusade. The call to a crusade could appeal as a medieval European symbol of Christian moral duty.

Some church leaders could not reconcile nationalist fervor with religious principle. Pope Benedict XV guided flocks in all warring nations. He was unable to choose sides, and so repeatedly pleaded for general peace and reconciliation. In August 1917 he announced his Papal Peace Proposal, seven points urging belligerents to lay down their weapons and submit to international arbitration. No government leader even responded save Wilson, who called the proposal premature. Warring countries in return heaped scorn on Benedict for not choosing their side because, plainly, theirs was God's side.

In the United States, as noted above, most obviously pacifist were the Mennonites, who could not accept war under any circumstances. In response mainstream Americans moved from reviling them as cowards, yellow, and pro-Kaiser, to occasional abuse and even torture. Nearly all German-Lutheran churches quickly jumped to declare their patriotic support for the war, although they were not necessarily ready to abandon services in German language, and cultural habits of the Old World. The explosion of anti-Germanism that marked the reverse of patriotic ardor persuaded many that they had better abandon these traditions, at least ostensibly.

When a country declares a crusade, it becomes dangerous to pray for peace.

Essay by Ross Collins, Associate Professor of Communication, North Dakota State University, Fargo.
The comments above are part of the author's research on America's media and World War I. They will appear in a forthcoming book, Debating the Issues in World War I, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

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