Since the 1980s, white evangelicals have been among the most ardent supporters of the Republican Party and an aggressive foreign policy. From Ronald Reagan confronting the Soviet Union to George W. Bush and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, they have been more likely to applaud the use of force than their fellow Americans. There have been dissenters—Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo come to mind—but these are the exceptions that prove the rule.
We can speak with some certainty about evangelical views on these matters after 1980 because social scientists have been conducting increasingly sophisticated surveys of this demographic. In Swords and Plowshares: American Evangelicals on War, 1937-1973, Timothy Padgett explores how white evangelicals (hereafter simply “evangelicals”) thought about war and related matters before such surveys existed. Padgett, managing editor of Breakpoint.org, approaches his subject primarily by analyzing articles and editorials in Moody Monthly, Christianity Today, Christian Herald, Our Hope, and Southern Presbyterian Journal (renamed Presbyterian Journal in 1959). He recognizes that this list includes no specifically Baptist, Wesleyan, or Pentecostal journals, and, of course, his study is biased toward the views of the evangelical elites who write for these periodicals.
In spite of these limitations, Swords and Plowshares offers a thorough, accurate, and well-documented account of how evangelicals thought about war and other issues in the mid-20th century. The core of Padgett’s book consists of eight chronological chapters, each of which considers how evangelicals portrayed America’s enemies, described their own country, evaluated the use of military force, and related current events to their eschatological views.
Careful Study and Consistent Counsel
Readers familiar with evangelicals only through crude stereotypes may expect that they uncritically praised America as a Christian nation, demonized opponents, glorified war, and combed the Book of Revelation to understand current events. It comes as a welcome relief, at least to this evangelical, that Padgett is able to paint a different picture. In his telling, evangelical thought leaders “offered consistent counsel to their followers during these difficult times,” and “this counsel was rooted in a careful study of the geopolitical solution and in a devoted adherence to longstanding Christian principles.”
Like many Americans, evangelicals were troubled by the rise of fascism, and like all Americans, they rallied around the flag after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. But even during the Second World War, evangelical leaders were careful not to conflate America with the kingdom of God, and they regularly reminded their followers that they should, in the words of a Moody Monthly editorial, “pray for our foes as well as friends. Ask God to help us to show forth the compassion of Christ in this hour of testing.”
To be sure, evangelicals could get swept up in demonizing enemies—more than one editorial referred to Japanese soldiers as “yellow criminals,” “yellow heathen invaders,” or “yellow pests.” During the Cold War, as Padgett explains, even a sophisticated leader such as Carl F. H. Henry “showed little patience for those doubting the overall effects of the FBI and Congressional committees regarding Communism.” But evangelicals, he points out, were far from alone in using such language and taking such stances.
A major theme of Swords and Plowshares is that “many stereotypes of evangelicals fail to live up to reality.” One exception to this rule is their intense interest in eschatology. But even here Padgett complicates the story. When Israel became a country in 1948, for instance, some evangelical publications “argued for Israeli independence without recourse to eschatological thinking, some argued against the new regime specifically because of their end-time beliefs, and some were either of two minds or downright disinterested.” Moreover, evangelicals did not hesitate to criticize Israel for its mistreatment of Arabs or its assault on Egypt during the Suez Crisis of 1956.
For the past 50 years, evangelicals have been among the most ardent supporters of Israel. Padgett suggests, but does not argue in detail, that this had much to do with Israel’s capture of Jerusalem in 1967. This event, which unleashed a great deal of prophetic speculation, seems to have marked a shift in evangelical attitudes—especially when viewed in light of God’s promise to Abraham that “I will bless those bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse” (Gen. 12:3), which many evangelicals believe applies to the state of Israel.
Padgett repeatedly describes his book as a study of how evangelicals viewed war, but he addresses a wider range of issues. For instance, he contends that they were uniformly critical of racism and often, with the partial exception of the Southern Presbyterian Journal, against segregation. During the Second World War, for example, a Christian Herald editorial criticized companies, “particularly those in the South, which refused to employ African Americans or Jews.” Similarly, a series of Eternity editorials in the early 1950s rebuked American churches for segregating themselves, arguing that the practice was a “great sin against the Lord who shed His blood for black, white, brown, yellow, and red.”
When thinking about America’s role in the world, some evangelical authors felt obligated to address the perennial question of whether America was or is a “Christian nation.” Their answers were surprisingly nuanced. For instance, in a 1965 article, Carl Henry contended that our “national independence has two chief sources ... the deism of men like Jefferson and Paine ... [and] the Calvinism of our Puritan, Scotch-Irish, French-Huguenot and Dutch forbearers.” But even if Christianity’s role in the founding was unclear, these leaders uniformly lamented the moral deterioration that they saw everywhere in America. They regularly called upon their fellow Christians to repent, lest God’s wrath be poured out upon the nation.
Swords and Plowshares makes an important contribution to the academic study of American religious history. It also suggests lessons for evangelicals today. Padgett demonstrates that mid-20th-century evangelicals were able to maintain a critical distance from political leaders, often offering sage, critical commentary on their nation’s approach to war and other policies. Perhaps one reason they were able to do this is that they were political outsiders for much of this time, enjoying little access to political leaders from either party.
Since 1980, evangelicals have been invited into the corridors of political power, especially by Republicans. Has this access made evangelical leaders less willing to criticize political leaders and policies? This certainly seems to be the case with leaders such as Jerry Falwell Jr., who recently responded to a Washington Post reporter’s question—“Is there anything President Trump could do that would endanger support from you or other evangelical leaders?”—with a simple “No.”
Falwell does not speak for all evangelical leaders, even those on the political right. Still, the mid-20th-century evangelicals studied by Padgett provide a fine example of leaders who understood that it is possible to be both patriotic and critical, and whose “trust was not in princes—even American ones.” We would all do well to remember and learn from their example.
Mark David Hall is Herbert Hoover Distinguished Professor of Politics at George Fox University. He is the co-editor, with J. Daryl Charles, of America and the Just War Tradition: A History of U. S. Conflicts (University of Notre Dame Press, March 2019) and the author of Did America Have a Christian Founding? Separating Modern Myth from Historical Fact (Thomas Nelson, October 2019).