Echoes of the religious dust-up reverberate

The Christian Century was far more exercised by the increasing belligerence of key churchmen in behalf of Stalin than they were by the steady movement of big capitalists to his succor in the war with the Germans. Singled out for special reproach were the Archbishop of Canterbury in Britain and prestigious Reinhold Niebuhr in the U.S. Repelled by the former's flattering estimate of the Reds in late October, the editors remarked disparagingly, “It is slightly nauseating to hear those who have never been able to find words hard enough to express their opinion of the Soviets now cooing compliments, and almost, if not quite, conferring benedictions."(130) The editors had not taken up the new fashion of fawning on an old enemy turned into an “ally” via the fortunes of war.

In Niebuhr's case, they were dealing with someone whose long campaign in behalf of Marx and Mars had undergone some modification; the former had been replaced by the Deity. In the magazine Christianity and Crisis, newly formed mainly to accommodate the war cries of a class of divine not previously noted for truculence toward Stalin, Niebuhr had registered the growing insolence of this kind of warrior parson with a ferocious editorial which attacked neutrality in any war as immoral. On November 12 the Christian Century ran one of its most lengthy and memorable editorials in decades, a five-column incensed raking of Niebuhr probably unmatched in any journal before. Its summary of his message was calculated to create serious qualms among the Men of God in the seminaries whose first allegiance had always been to the Prince of Peace: It is the baldest apologetic for war that has appeared in either secular or religious contemporary writing. It is not merely an apologetic for this war and for America's participation in it, but for war in general. Under its thesis the United States would become responsible for participation in any war waged anywhere in the world.(131)

It would appear that Rev. Niebuhr had written a manifesto which far more than not set the course for U.S. foreign policy which by and large is still in effect over 40 years later. It was a message for soldiers, money, business and industry, and politicians, not clergymen. Rev. Niebuhr, a not-so-closet-Marxist, was another of their most eloquent and articulate voices who saw no serious conflict in the way of planetary cooperation between Stalinist Russia and the new form of corporate state taking shape rapidly in the U.S.A.

But the green light for war participation did not shine down all the avenues of organized religion. Though several Catholic leaders in prominent positions had endorsed Roosevelt's pro- intervention drive, it was a view hardly shared with the parish priesthood, who dealt with people and not with the symbols of power. A poll of 34,616 Catholic priests which was responded to by 13,155 of them revealed that 91.5% were opposed to a shooting war outside the Western Hemisphere for Americans (only 6.7% were for it), and that 90.5% opposed any aid to the “Communist Russian government” (7% favored it). The liberal and pro-war Catholic weekly Commonweal was very unhappy about the results,(132) while Commonweal's opposite number, the anti-war Protestant Christian Century, confined itself to observing: “The President's sedulous wooing of Catholic approval does not seem to have produced very gratifying results."(133)

Part of the impact of this thundering voice of disapproval was negated a month later. The last week of November 1941 a statement by ten Bishops and Archbishops on the administrative board of the National Catholic Welfare Conference contained a vaguely pro-interventionist pronouncement which contributed in a minor way to refurbishing the Communist aid cause. Utilizing the clever ploy fashioned by Woodrow Wilson in 1918 in setting up a distinction between the peoples and political systems of Germany and Russia, in this new case, it seemed to be sufficient grounds, in the view of the prelates, to enable Catholics “to back U.S. aid to Russia” and not feel seriously in error while so doing. Time called it “a prime example of ecclesiastical double talk,” but since it supported a policy heatedly promoted by the editors, the magazine was far from displeased by it all. (134)


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