The Destructive Lessons of World War I

My great uncle, Cpl. Joe Connelly, was killed in France in 1918. Joe was 22 years old.

Several years ago I began to research his short life: I gathered his few letters and some photographs from kith and kin, retrieved his army records, clipped a number of yellowing newspaper articles, and found an old history of his regiment. I wrote an article that was published in the local newspaper on Memorial Day, and then I wrote a novel — a ghost story — about his life and death that never did find a publisher. But, throughout this familial exercise I began to consider the question: Why did we fight in World War I?

It is a question that has been answered by Richard Gamble in his new book, The War for Righteousness. Professor Gamble’s book is a cautionary history, a warning of what can happen when elitists seek to implement their vision predicated on false doctrine or a myopic worldview.

The elitists in question were self-described “progressive” Protestant ministers, “theologians, seminary professors, and college presidents” who never accepted Augustine’s spiritually erudite vision of “two cities” as profitable and always held dear the old Puritan myth of America as that glorious “City upon a Hill.” And, it was their faith in progress — what they referred to as “developmentalism,” and defined “. . . as an encompassing, meliorative force that controlled both the natural world and universal history” — that started the intellectual and spiritual “migration” from orthodox Christianity.

For these liberal or “progressive” clergy the Bible was an “incomplete and imperfect revelation.” They did not see God as transcendent but as immanent and “at one with his creation. . . a God who manifests Himself in His creation and accomplishes His will through natural, developmental processes, both historical and biological.”

One no longer need be concerned with the “old” ideas such as salvation and redemption. The new path to God was achieved by improving the lot of our neighbors, and addressing the evils inherent in a capitalist society. The new religion — social progress — would not only save us all but begin the process of “Christianizing” America, then, of course, the world!

A significant side effect, however, was that by “perverting” orthodox Christianity these liberals had tied the church to government. They had subjected the Will of God to the will of “Caesar.” The results would be not only catastrophic for America, but never ending as well.

The liberal or progressive church leaders garnered the support of the media, controlled numerous seminaries, and procured the funding of the Rockefeller and Carnegie endowments. They established powerful organizations, held regular meetings for planning the “War for Righteousness,” wrote extensively in the Christian as well as secular press, and began to exert influence in government.

Once World War I began the progressives, who were primarily pacifists of one stripe or another, began to take a hawkish position. They amended their beliefs to fit the events; the war was merely a means to an end. Of course there’d be thousands slaughtered but the survivors would surely return home as fine young, progressive Christians. America would spiritually advance to the status of “servant” nation, providing the impetus, funds, and the occasional whiff of powder necessary to move the reluctant and recalcitrant nations to the light of the “new world order!” It was, “elitist democratic messianism,” writ large.

Prof. Gamble’s book provides a powerful exegesis of how progressive Christianity influenced the foreign policy of the Wilson Administration. And, it was President Wilson’s maladroit policies that led directly to the establishment of the Soviet Union and the demise of the old European order. Out of the ashes of World War I, “the war to end all wars,” would rise Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin. The horrific secular wars of the 20th Century would claim over 100-million lives.

Richard Gamble’s book defines a seminal moment in American history, a moment aggravated by the inimical effects of heresy. The author’s scholarship is in-depth, his writing is clear, and his conclusions are irrefutable. The War for Righteousness is required reading for all of us who are students of American history.

As for Joe Connelly, he was very much like his comrades-in-arms. He was neither wealthy nor well educated, and he had no social position but, in the end, he was a better man than the “progressive” clergy that demanded his sacrifice.