Politics and the Church – The Hypocrisy of Politics in the Church [Part 14]

Let me start this week’s commentary with a short commentary of my own.  I want to once again reemphasize that this subset of “Politics and the Church” is not a rant against the Methodist Church.  In fact I very much respect the Church for taking a stand for what it believes.  Their advice to the government was not popular in all realms and many were probably offended by the stand the Church was taking.  This was before the days of ‘political correctness’ and the Church was willing to speak its conscience whether it was popular or not.  For that I respect the Church.  The government knew it had a ‘watchdog’ monitoring its actions and had to take the opinion of the Church into account in the decisions that it made.  Today, we see what can happen when that is no longer the case.  Now let’s get on with a world that is heading into a maelstrom that no amount of peaceful efforts seem to be able to avoid. The angel of light with his weapons of hate, greed, envy and confusion seems to be putting his ‘game’ into place.

     Later in 1939, the Methodist Peace Conference, unanimously opposed US participation in the war and asked the US to ‘initiate and continue a conference of neutral nations to bring the war to an end,” while also laying “foundations of peace with economic justice.”  Imploring “we must not repeat the mistakes of 1914-17,”it opposed any US help for belligerents.  The Church apparently did not understand the nature of the leadership in Germany and Japan. Nevertheless, opposition to selling armaments to Japan was sidetracked. [“Meeting of Neutrals Urged to Stop War”, Christian Science Monitor (September 21, 1939) Page 7].  New York Bishop Francis McConnell dispassionately noted the war was not about defending Poland from “aggression” or Germany’s correcting the “wrongs” of the Treaty of Versailles but instead was a “war of ideologies” that cannot coexist in the “same small world”. [“M’Connell Pleads for World Honor”, New York Times (November 13, 1939) Page 12].

     Set against a backdrop of an ever spreading world war, but with America still at peace, a reunified Methodism convened its 1940 General Conference in Atlantic City. The bishops’ episcopal address predicted the war would bankrupt the “so-called Western civilizations”.  They faulted the war on the “intensity and extent of the twentieth-century nationalism”, without naming any ideologies like Nazism.  They denounced a “war system” which entails “atheism, materialism, barbarism, and diabolism.”  They also observed approvingly that more Christians were becoming conscientious  objectors, with support from Methodism for their “exaltation of a Christian value.”  The delegates resolved that the US “should remain out of the present conflicts in Europe and in the Far East” and that the Methodist Church “will not officially endorse, support, or participate in war”.  The Church’s membership “divided” over “what a Christian should do when his own nation becomes involved in war.” [Resolutions, Methodist Church General Conference(1940) Pages 776-778].  The delegates did endorse a “moral embargo” against “aggressor nations”, primarily aimed at Japan…whatever a ‘moral embargo’ is?  Future Bishop Nolan Harmon urged a “legal” embargo…whatever that is…insisting ,”We cannot be neutral any longer.”  Others, though, argued a legal embargo might precipitate war with Japan. [“Methodists Favor ‘Moral Embargo'”, Baltimore Sun (May 7, 1940) Page 15].  It is difficult to negotiate with an enemy dead-set at gaining power and control.  The Methodist Church’s efforts at this point are commendable but only a source of encouragement to the ‘enemy’.  

     A somewhat disapproving British Methodist who addressed the 1940 General Conference told the delegates:”It is difficult for me to see how neutrality and isolation are among the Christian virtues, but we in England are confident that you will do the right thing.” [“Methodists Hear Briton Criticize US Neutrality”, Christian Science Monitor (April 30, 1940) Page 6].  Retired Bishop James Cannon was more impatient, urging the US to “declare war against Hitler and his fellow monsters”, insisting there could be no “permanent peace unless and until justice and righteousness prevail.” [“Bishop Asks US Declare War Against Hitler”, Hartford Courant (May 20, 1940) Page 5].  He further explained: “Pacifists may refuse to defend forcibly their personal rights. But can even pacifists deny the duty to protect helpless women against ruffians, or innocent persons against bands of criminals?”  Cannon insisted “injustice, cruelty, persecution are worse than war.” [“Cannon Explains Anti-Hitler Stand”, Baltimore Sun (July 23, 1940) Page 11].  The Methodist Peace Commission quickly publicized that Cannon did not speak for the church.  Back then leaders in the church were not afraid to speak up and if what they had to say offended, so be it.

     Meanwhile, the National Council of Methodist Youth told President Roosevelt,”Youth does not want to be conscripted”, and likened the draft to “the same method which Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin have used.”  [“Church Group Assails Plans to Draft Youth”, Chicago Daily Tribune (June 25, 1940)].  Complaining of loans and destroyer sales to Britain, Methodism’s Christian Advocate editoralized in early 1941, on behalf of “millions of people who call themselves Methodists”, urging FDR to “try again, Mr. President, to bring about a just and honorable peace.”  [“Methodist Journal Asks Roosevelt to Keep US Out of War”, Chicago Daily Tribune (January 18, 1941) Page 2].  They just didn’t seem to understand that you do not negotiate with tyrants who are set on power and greed.

     Only two months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Northern Illinois Annual Conference deplored “administrative actions that, step by step, are involving us in a shooting war, though undeclared.”  It reminded FDR of “his emphatic and repeated promise not to send our boys to wars overseas.” [“Roosevelt War Policy Blasted by Methodists”, Chicago Daily Tribune (October 10, 1941) Page 14].  Sometimes leaders are forced into situations they would like to avoid but just can’t.

     World famous author and Methodist missionary to India, E. Stanley Jones, went to Washington, DC, in late 1941 to facilitate diplomacy between President Roosevelt and the Japanese.  Jones in 1937 denounced Japan’s invasion of China as “the central international crime that is being committed in the world today” and urged “economic withdrawal” from Japan. [Stephen Graham, Extraordinary Man, Extraordinary Mission: The Life and Work of E. Stanley Jones (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005) Pages 257-258].  He advocated that Australia and the Netherlands give Japan New Guinea in exchange for Japanese withdrawal from China.  Jones even met with Japanese Embassy diplomats and FDR, successfully urging FDR to appeal for peace directly to the Japanese emperor. But time for discussion and appeal was over and done with.  The church had interjected its opinion on war and the tyrants had rejected its opinion. It was now time for the Methodist Church to evaluate its stance on political matters.  Was this the time for the church to separate itself from political matters?

     Next time we will see that avoiding politics in a democracy is easier said than done.

– Bob Munsey

“One cannot be a victim and a victor at the same time.”  Senator Tim Scott, R-SC

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