Politics and the Church – The Hypocrisy of Politics in the Church [Part 15]

On December 7th, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor while their representatives were in Washington, DC, pretending to negotiate peace.  After Japan’s attack E. Stanley Jones, Methodist missionary to India, chose his political position and thus the church chose to integrate politics in its wartime organization. After Japan’s attack, Jones faulted America’s “virtual ultimatum” to Japan over China, without offering New Guinea.  I must suppose that he had not learned about appeasement in Chamberlain’s attempts with Hitler.  Jones concluded: “Japan is the immediate cause of this war, but America has her responsibility in the remote causes that led up to it.” [“Methodists Wire Support to President”, Atlanta Constitution (December 11, 1941) Page 12].

     Immediately after the Japanese attack the Methodist Council of Bishops telegraphed FDR from their meeting at Sea Island, Georgia, to assure him that “in this hour of peril of our profound sympathy and loyalty and above all our earnest prayers that in this national crisis you may have divine guidance and support.”  Ohio Bishop H. Lester Smith denounced Pearl Harbor as as “outrageous example of Barbarism,” with a “declaration of war the only thing we could do.”  Georgia Bishop William Ainsworth said,”When the Japanese stabbed us in the back…there was nothing for America to do but go out in defense of ourselves.” Indiana Bishop Titus Lowe noted the US “has been patient with Japan.”  Retired Bishop James Cannon suggested Japanese diplomats in the US be “interned immediately.”  New York Bishop Francis McConnell prayed,” Having taken a stand, give us the courage not to turn back.” [E. Stanley Jones, “Memorandum Concerning Our Efforts for Peace Between Japan and America”, undated, United Methodist Archives Center at Drew University].  In a “Wartime Message” to the churches, the bishops pledged,”In this crisis in our history, the Methodists of America will support our President and our nation.”  They also anticipated “coming days of peace”, after “victories in war,” when the church would help through political involvement to create “agencies and machinery necessary to establish international justice.”  [Robert L. Wilson, Biases and Blindspots : Methodism and Foreign Policy since World War II (Wilmore, KY: Good News Books, 1988) Pages 23-25].

     When British Prime Minister Winston Churchill visited Washington, DC, in December 1941 FDR took him to Christmas service at Foundry Methodist Church, insisting he would enjoy singing hymns with the “Methodysts.”  The statesmen agreed they would focus on defeating Nazi Germany over militarist Japan.  But Methodist Bishop Edwin Lee, formerly of Singapore, urged targeting Japan, insisting Japanese control over the “masses” of Asia “would be more disastrous” than a Nazi Europe. He explained that Japan feared further expansion of Christianity in Asia.  In 1942, two Methodist bishops joined other Protestant leaders in urging a “second front” through France or Spain against Germany to relieve pressure on Russia. [“Protestants Ask 2d Front”, Baltimore Sun (October 26, 1942) Page 10].

     The Council of Bishops in 1942 declared their “appreciation of the nobility of the sacrifice which the youth of our Methodist homes and churches are making in the military service at the call of our nation.” [Herman Will, The Will for Peace (Washington, DC:General Board of Church and Society, 1984) Page 64].

     In 1943 retired Bishop James Cannon joined the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe to implore Red Cross help for Jews in Nazi satellite nations. [“Jews’ Rescue Seen in Red Cross Help”, New York Times (July 22, 1943)].  It went even further in 1944 to urge Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s intervention on behalf of Hungary’s Jews. [“Russia’s Aid Sought for Jews in Hungary”, New York Times (May 17, 1944)].  Even back in 1942, Cannon had joined other prominent Americans in backing an army for stateless European and Palestinian Jews “to fight…as they had asked to fight…under the ancient banner of David the King, as the Jewish Army.” [“1,521 Sign Appeal for Jewish Army”, New York Times (November 17, 1942)].  In 1943, Cannon joined with Jewish rabbis and a Catholic New York congressman to plead for Jewish immigration to Palestine and elsewhere. [“Rabbis Present Plea to Wallace”, New York Times (October 7, 1943)].  I suppose that at this time Bishop Cannon had not been informed that he had no business in politics.

     The Southern California/Arizona Annual Conference in 1944 complained of the internment of Japanese Americans on the West Coast, declaring “Democratic justice will best be served by granting freedom of movement to loyal Japanese anywhere in the United States on the same basis as other Americans and aliens of other countries.” [“Attitude on US Japanese is Changing on West Coast”, Christian Science Monitor (July 5, 1944) Page 18].

     A prominent New York Methodist  pastor joined other clergy in objecting to “obliteration bombing” of German cities.  Another Methodist minister denounced these “bluestocking clergy” and urged blasting Berlin and Tokyo until the Axis “archcriminals are forever wiped from the face of the earth.” [“Protest on Bombing Scored by Nesbit”, New York Times (March 27, 1944) Page 21].  Boston Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam defended the bombings as a “revolting necessity.” [“Raids on Cities Backed by Methodist Journal”, Baltimore Sun (March 23, 1944) Page 3]. Didn’t these church leaders know they were to say nothing to offend the brethren? 

     Throughout the war, the Methodist World Peace Commission was dominated by pacifists and affirmed conscientious objectors.  The Methodist Youth Fellowship, attracting 1,000 young people to a 1942 meeting, urged the church “not to actively support or participate in the war” and affirming the official Methodist 1094 anti-war stance.  In 1942, the Methodist Women’s Division president rejoiced that her prayers were answered when weather prevented a government agent from touting war bonds at a women’s assembly. [Will, Will for Peace, Pages 65-67].  Did’t the church care about how many such a stance offended; or did it care?

     Some Methodists, like future Bishop Nolan Harmon of Virginia, were not willing that the 1944 General Conference, meeting in Kansas City, should denounce war when the democracies were struggling against the Axis powers.  Harmon had denounced the 1940 anti-war stance as an “embarrassment to every Methodist chaplain, and a question mark in every Methodist home which had sent someone into service.”  But a committee majority report in 1944 strongly recommended a renewed anti-war stand and refused to “pray for a military victory.”  Harmon reminded the delegates, “We have spent more time in calling attention to the plight of 600 Methodists conscientious objectors than we have to three times that many Methodist boys, dead and buried under crosses on battlefields in far-flung corners of the earth.” He insisted that “the ultimate control of moral evil in this world must be by force.” [Nolan Harmon, Ninety Years and Counting: Autobiography of Nolan B. Harmon (Nashville:The Upper Room, 1983) Pages 206-210].  Harmon went on to say,”In Christ’s name we ask for the blessing of God upon the men in the armed forces, and we pray for victory.”  While respect was shown to the pacifists he went on to say,”We cannot accept their position as the defining position of the Christian Church.”  He concluded with: “We are well within the Christian position when we assert the necessity of the use of military forces to resist an aggression which would overthrow every right which is held sacred by civilized men.” [Miscellaneous Resolutions, Methodist Church General Conference (1944) Pages 574-575].  His minority report passed by 373 to 300.  The clergy had voted for it by only 170 to 169, but the laity by 203 to 131. [“Methodists Vote Support of War, Reversing Position Taken in 1940”, New York Times May 5, 1944) Page 21].  One delegate complained that critics who called war “dirty” should recall that the “cross was dirty, too, but it showed the way to the redemption of the world.”  Another delegate complained that Methodist youth groups were “festering with pacifism”.  Obviously offending  within the church was not of high priority.

     Delegates to this same conference approved a follow-up resolution declaring, “Christianity cannot be nationalistic” and that the “methods of Jesus and the methods of war belong to different worlds.”  It concluded: “The church must rise in its might and demand an international organization which will make another war impossible.” [Will, Will for Peace, Pages 72-73].  The bishops told the 1944 General Conference: Multiplied thousands of the bravest young men and women of our Church are on battlefields…to preserve our liberty and protect our Christian ideals…They are writing another golden page in the book of patriotism.” [Journal of the General Conference, Methodist Church (1944) Page 178].  Some clergy denounced the US atomic attacks on Japanese in 1945, which ended World War II.  The American lives saved didn’t seem to fit into the equation.

     The crisis of World War II had compelled official Methodism’s return to historic Christian teachings about just war.  It looked as though the church’s involvement in politics might be ready to come to an end, but as the ‘Cold War’ began and persisted, Methodist pacifists would again reassert their rejection of all military force.  Would potential enemies agree?  Next week we will take a look at the post World War II world as some would have liked for it to have been and as it really was.

– Bob Munsey

“A man who gives his life to save another man has truly given the last full measure”  President Abe Lincoln

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