War’s Dilemmas: The Century 1938-1945

by Martin E. Marty

Martin E. Marty recently wrote Modern American Religion (Vol. 2): The Noise of Conflict.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, September 26, 1984, p. 867. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


While monitoring the war and its devastations, the Century stayed faithful to the Day-to-day doings of Americans in culture and society. Nevertheless, the war colored almost everything in those years. Dr. Morrison’s legacy sounded strong and clear throughout the war years: “Keep it religious!”

One could draw a figurative line through the topics covered in most weekly issues of The Christian Century from the year before World War II through the end of that war. On one side would be all evidences of the war: conscientious chronicling of its main events -- especially where religion had a bearing -- coupled with articles and editorials on issues of war and peace. On the other side of this line would be hundreds of reports on Christian church life and American culture. While the latter have no “business as usual” stamp, since the war colored almost everything those years, one senses that the editors were saying: life must go on; faith needs nurture; the subtleties of life matter; there are trenches in America as well as on the front lines.

Between the wars a broad pacifist sentiment had developed. Protestant clergy, often coached or rallied by this most influential mainline and liberal magazine, leaned toward the peacemaking side. By the end of the 1930s, however, it was a set of troubled peace people who commented here each week.

The magazine’s most noted off-premises editor, Reinhold Niebuhr, was restless and, in the end, emphatic. For him pacifism did not answer Hitler’s demonic threat and the totalitarian evils. Few incidents in the magazine’s history attracted as much attention as the break between Editor Charles Clayton Morrison and Niebuhr. For several years Niebuhr’s disaffection was evident, as he transferred loyalties to secular liberal magazines like the Nation. Then in 1941 he helped found and became editor of Christianity and Crisis.

The Century editors had the harder time of it, because they fully shared the Niebuhrians’ horror of Nazism fascism and Japanese militarism. And, throughout the 1930s, something in their editorial bones kept telling them that the issues would not be settled nor Hitler’s aggression stopped without resistance. Many an editorial therefore warned, mourned or rued, but never offered useful alternatives to the war party’s policies. If there was a consistent line, it was a progressive acquiescence to the inevitable, as Austria, Czechoslovakia, then Poland and so much of the rest of Europe fell. Let there be restraint, and a minimum of righteous fervor and self-idolatry as this “tragic necessity” unfolds, was the plea.

Part of the long-range philosophical outlook of Morrison and company was revealed when, once war came, they almost immediately began talking about its aftermath. While they could do little except to call for repentant participation and conscientious attention to the military prosecution of the war, the editors believed the Christian community had a great responsibility for subsequent peacemaking. Articles on how to wage peace, promote relief and structure international dialogue were frequent.

It is revealing to see how alert the magazine was to events in the Pacific theater. Forty-five years later, with so many mainstream Protestants apathetic or uncertain about the meaning of “foreign missions,” it is hard to re-create a climate in which missionary thought played such a vivid role. Protestantism had a heavy investment in Japan, a commanding and literate nation that would be crucial for any Christian future in that hemisphere.

The editors long feared the Japanese military growth, and criticized American arms policies that curiously contributed to that buildup, even as President Franklin D. Roosevelt was scored for undue belligerence against Japan. There were notices that explained Shinto, the religious ethos and structure that supported Japanese nationalism and militarism. The fate of the Japanese churches, which were increasingly less autonomous, was a regular topic. Meanwhile, editors watched the situation of the church in China, long a favored missionary field. Reports indicated anti-Christian action by the Chinese communists, and many writers speculated whether much of the faith would survive the war, no matter its outcomes.

At the same time, specific aspects of the European -- especially the German -- war machines led editors to focus on them. Germany, Italy and, in its own way, Russia were totalitarianisms born in millennium-old Christian cultures. The editors considered it imperative to discern what went wrong after 1914 to bring into power Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin with all their instruments of terror.

The November 30, 1938, issue clearly spelled out in great detail the editors’ thoughts on “Demonic Germany and the Predicament of Humanity”:

That such a phenomenon as the anti-Semitic pogrom could appear in Western society seemed at first incredible -- in a society that has been for centuries impregnated with the principles of the Christian faith.


It was the announced intention to do away with Judaism and Jews that elicited the adjective “demonic” and charges of “hellishness.” The editors strained their vocabularies to find language that -- while none could capture the atrocity of Nazism -- at least could serve as barometers and thermometers.

Like most other thoughtful Americans -- Christian, Jewish, secular, public or private -- the editors talked themselves into bemusement about how to respond. The “fiendish and shameless relapse from the most elemental instincts which actuate civilized humanity,’’ when voiced by Josef Goebbels, left the West without a policy. Goebbels would export the Jews en masse to any takers. What to do? A few called for a pre-emptive attack on Germany. The editors were too pacific to encourage that and too practical to anticipate success at whatever price. The Western powers had “everything to lose in defeat and nothing to gain in victory.”

The editors looked at proposals for a Jewish homeland in Madagascar, some spot in South Africa, Tanganyika or Australia, but saw few prospects. ‘‘Palestine is out of the question, in view of the failure of the British mandate to attain some modus vivendi as between Jews and Arabs.” The United States, they thought, should take more exiles, but with 10 million already unemployed, the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Jewish exiles would only exacerbate that problem and stimulate anti-Semitism. So they offered little direction: “We make no attempt to disguise our bafflement.”

This early editorial stance on a Jewish homeland confronts one of the touchiest issues left over from those years. The editors could say “Palestine is out of the question,” then spend many issues debating whether it really was, and ways in which it was in the question. They have been much attacked for their attitudes during this period; my shelf has several books criticizing Americans, Christians, liberals and The Christian Century for being blind, or for having knowledge but no policy concerning the Jews.

One hesitates to minimize the burden of moral failure in the Christian and Protestant past. At the same time, encountering freshly the thousands of pages from, as it were, the other direction temporally, sets the issue in context.

The Century editors were agents of interfaith amity and victims of an obsolete model. They thought they were tolerant, and were, on any reading of the Jewish-Christian temperatures of the 1930s. They tirelessly supported interfaith organizations, unwearyingly opposed domestic anti-Semitism, and were hopeful about concord and respect in the country’s future. On the other hand, they were captive of turn-of-the-century WASP models that called for assimilation, accommodation, homogeneity in American life.

From the beginning, such Protestants were very friendly to Jews, but only Jews of a particular sort. Theirs was the Reform Jewish world, which, it must be remembered, was dominated by passionate anti-Zionists right into the beginning of this period. For them, Judaism was a universal faith, not given to ethnic particularism and thickness. In a way, Judaism could draw on its heritage to be as much like liberal Protestantism as possible, while liberal Protestantism drew on its heritage to be more like Reform Judaism than one imagines could have been possible in that intolerant age.

Such an outlook meant that the editors thought they were being friendly to all Jews but Zionists. The magazine regularly published articles like Morris S. Lazaron’s contribution to the famed “How My Mind Has Changed in This Decade” series on August 30, 1939. Judaism, wrote the rabbi, was a universal religion. Jewish nationalism was a reaction to despair, but it could not preserve Judaism. “Judaism cannot accept as the instrument of its salvation the very philosophy of nationalism which is leading the world to destruction. Shall we condemn it as Italian or German but accept it as Jewish?’’ With the editors he praised the Zionists’ marvels in Palestine but warned World Zionist Organization extremists of perils that lay ahead. Judaism was “not an exclusive, nationalist . . . tribal faith,’’ and the Zionist solution threatened to change this.

Given this background, it could have been bizarre and intellectually fickle for the editors to reverse their position instantly on the homeland question. “For Judaism to insist rigorously on aloofness, on segregation, on maintaining itself as a self-enclosed community, is to withhold its witness from the general community, proclaimed an editorial of December 20, 1939.

In a celebrated incident, the editors had difficulty believing Holocaust statistics presented by a rare Reform Zionist, Stephen Wise. The editors checked with the State Department and accepted the department’s verdict that Wise was probably exaggerating. That aside, there was little minimizing. In 1938 the editors began constant reports on the little evidence available about pogroms and eventual threats of extermination of Jews. They simply could see no “just and moral solution” of the Jewish homeland issue. The problem, they said, resulted from deceitful policies that made Jews the tragic pawns of empire (May 31, 1939).

In “Gazing into the Pit” (May 9, 1945), the editor found visual corroboration of what he had feared about and reported on concentration camps.

What can be said that will not seem like tossing little words up against a giant mountain of ineradicable evil? . . . We have found it hard to believe that the reports . . . could be true. Almost desperately we have tried to think that they must be wildly exaggerated.

The editors had feared atrocity-mongering of the World War I sort. “But such puny barricades cannot stand up against the terrible facts.” They called for every kind of Christian ecumenical response. The magazine’s approach through the Holocaust years was limited, blinded, and the editors were benumbed. So was the U.S. government; more so were other Christian periodicals that almost or entirely ignored the subject. Even Jewish organizations knew little to do, and most did little. Liberal Protestants had their limits and villainies, but singling them out, out of context, for condemnation does not do justice to the larger story.

On the domestic scene -- and on an infinitely smaller and less ominous scale -- the magazine kept up its non-shooting war with the other large group of Americans who created problems for assimilators and seekers of homogeneity: Catholics, Liberal Protestantism and The Christian Century have a partly earned reputation for unreasoned anti-Catholicism, and the war years show that there was not a total cease-fire on this front.

Certainly one myth characterized their approach and limited their ecumenical and civil outreach. Like most non-Catholics, they thought that the Roman Catholic Church, and especially its American branch, was a monolith, a juggernaut, a subservient mass. Culturally and socially, the editors thought, Catholics should be nondescript, blended and tolerant -- like liberal Protestants. The reality of Catholic life, in other words, was very different from the image it bore.

That said, except for one incident and its frantic response, the magazine was far more genial and friendly to Catholicism than its reputation indicates. While it would not have occurred to the editors to include Catholics in church unity schemes and pictures, they showed respect for Popes Pius XI and XII, wished Catholic citizens well, and often praised the church’s achievements. What ruined everything for a year was the proposal by Franklin Roosevelt to appoint Myron C. Taylor as a Vatican ambassador. In 1940 the entire possibility looked like breaking the game rules of national life. The magazine returned to this theme so frequently that on this one subject alone this reader of 15 year’s worth of issues announces: it was a bore. No harm done, one might say, except to imagination and variety.

The editors were not solely interested in confirmation that the monolithic juggernaut, under signals from Rome, always acted against the American Protestant Republic. Just the opposite. The Morrison era found the staff eager to report on ferment and change. It is impressive to see how early they began watching the late Father John Courtney Murray, S.J. On January 5, 1944, the magazine reported on a pamphlet in which Murray and a colleague showed how Catholics would collaborate with all who believe in God in order to “renovate secular society.” Protestants ought to go along with this program, the magazine advised, even if they should remain cautious.

On August 1, 1945, a long editorial gave thoughtful praise to Murray’s pamphlet “Freedom of Religion.” Murray’s essay was “so keen in analysis, so fine in spirit and so clear in expression that it not only exhibits the issues without evasion or distortion but also helps to create an atmosphere in which these issues can be discussed dispassionately.” This did not mean that Murray converted the editors to the half-way house he portrayed; he himself was not pushing as hard as he did successfully 20 years later when Vatican II essentially approved his approach. Differences remained. Yet there was a fine discrimination growing in the editors’ minds.

This reference to Catholicism is the first turn to the other half of the magazine’s concerns. While monitoring the war and its devastations, the Century stayed faithful to the day-to-day doings of Americans in culture and church. While the domestic issues that concerned the editors had continuity with those of prewar years, they were necessarily de-emphasized during the crisis. The magazine cajoled believers into feeding more of the hungry, drying up the wet (liquor interests regularly were scored), and there were editorials about lynchings and labor, gambling and injustice. To their credit, the writers kept alert on the fronts where demagogues like Charles Coughlin still found followings, and blasted his anti-Semitism and divisive social policies. The shadow of late depression days remained, though by 1938 there seemed to be little new to say.

One of my favorite and one of the most revealing stories in the Century’s lore occurred when Charles Clayton Morrison looked back on 30 years of editing (October 5, 1938):

I recall with many an inward chuckle, one morning some ten or a dozen years ago when the business manager came into the office to tell of a dream he had had that night. It seems that I was drowning in Lake Michigan. He and my editorial colleagues were standing on the shore, having exhausted all their efforts to rescue me. I was just going down for the third and last time, but before the water covered my mouth I thrust up my hand and cried, “Keep it religious! Keep it religious!”

They knew that “it” meant The Christian Century, and that my exhortation was in keeping with the determination, shared by us all, against the temptation to break away from religious journalism and make the paper an organ of secular idealism. I speak of it as a “temptation,” for that it truly was. Our public could easily have been expanded far beyond the church, our income greatly increased, and our secular prestige enhanced, had the collective abilities represented in our editorial staff been devoted to a freelance type of journalism.

Maybe. In any case, the good doctor added, “We have been able to resist this temptation because our hearts are in the Christian church,” whose problems and hopes the magazine chose to share and stick with.

Sometimes this emphasis meant celebrating the occasional moments of victory on the front the magazine held most dear: the ecumenical. Very little ecumenical news missed mention. In 1939 this could mean something as in-house as the reunion of northern and southern Methodists. Yet never did the editors feel compelled to give Federal Council of Churches officials or planners for the World Council of Churches a free ride; criticism was constant. One could reduce the length of reporting on this subject, which took hundreds of pages, by saying that if unity in Christ was being approached or offered, this magazine was for it. The mark of “one” sometimes obscured “holy,” “catholic,” or “apostolic” in the editors’ concerns.

No surprises there. There were surprises, though, in the way these chastened liberals talked about the mission of the church. Far from being the naturalist theists their teachers may have been, Morrison, Winfred Ernest Garrison, Paul Hutchinson and new young writers, like Harold E. Fey, were devoted more to what Henry Pitney Van Dusen elsewhere described as Christocentric liberalism. They were particularists who seemed to think that this could be the core of a universal message, and they stuck to it.

Whoever has laughed at a philosophy of history betrayed in the name Christian Century or at the simple-mindedness of modernism would do well to read the editors struggling with theological change around and in them. The critical realism of the Niebuhr brothers, the neo-orthodoxy of Karl Barth and the Europeans, the recovery of Sören Kierkegaard -- each of whom was closely watched by Century book reviewers -- must have been difficult for these midwestern Disciples and Methodists to grasp. Comfortable with immanental views of God, they struggled with ‘Wholly Other” kinds of transcendence. Nurtured toward sunny faith in human disposition, under God, they confronted the revived emphasis on original sin, total depravity and the human condition as diminishing the grandeur of the human as God’s creation.

The famous, and almost eternal, “How My Mind Has Changed” series patented in the late 1930s could have made the editors look like mere tenders of a theological cafeteria line. But Morrison and his co-workers did more than print articles; they argued with the authors, plundering, ransacking, resisting -- and sometimes being changed themselves.

In other areas, too, the Century was open to change. For example, it maintained a respectable record of placing women on the editorial staff; when Margaret Frakes was hired in 1949 she was the publication’s fourth female editor. This was during a time when there were practically no female professors at U.S. seminaries. Not until August 23, 1939, had the editors been able to cheer Georgia Harkness’s appointment at Garrett Biblical Institute in Evanston as that of the first woman on an American seminary staff. And then they readily printed a letter saying that no, Professor Harkness was not the first. What about Margaret Tappan, who had been at San Francisco Theological Seminary since 1937? Editorials like “Women in the Church” (December 11, 1940) furthered the cause; it carried the following indictment: “The American church is still one of the most backward of all institutions in the place it accords to women and the attitude which it exhibits toward them.”

One unanticipated shift in these years brought public attention to evangelicalsm, fundamentalism and Pentecostalism at the expense of the Protestant mainstream. The editors saw fundamentalism as a backwoods, over the hill, jerkwater phenomenon that had already outlived its time. There were several articles on “Holy Rollers” in the remote distance, and some of their churches were congratulated for serving overlooked people. However, C. P. Raycito urged that “we must not compromise with our convictions just because these primitive notions of the minor sects seem to be gaining in popularity or because they do attract some we cannot reach” (August 15, 1939). To surrender to the fundamentalists’ otherworldly outlook would be as bad, the author thought, as succumbing to the fashionable defeatism of European theology. There was a mention that Carl McIntire was organizing a fundamentalist American Council of Christian Churches, but it seemed a curiosity. Harold E. Fey reported at length on “Youth for Christ” in the June 20, 1945, issue and he managed to say some good things about revivalism, but worried about the slickness and crowd manipulation; it was “milky abstraction” compared to the solid meat of Jonathan Edwards, Francis Asbury or even Dwight L. Moody. Fey made one bad guess: “One is entitled to doubt that the current resurgence will endure very long.”

What impresses is the intactness of the mainstream Protestant world. With passion rarely amassed today, the editors and those people important to them held huge rallies in downtown auditoriums. They evangelized and witnessed and programmed and cheered; they were the custodians of the culture’s spiritual values, and that task required unity. They worried about keeping the Protestant colleges alive, finding postwar ministers and representing religion on campuses, where minds were being shaped. They watched every move in the seminaries and divinity schools, because leadership training mattered greatly.

The Christian Century, through its good-natured Quintus Quiz columns, thousands of book reviews and hundreds of editorials, saw itself as a fine-tuner of these impulses. That required the editors to be more self-critical than I, for one, had been led to picture them as being. There was some orneriness, cantankerousness and sometimes willful self-blinding in Morrison, whom a few of those who contribute to the magazine, I among them, remember at least dimly. In his 90s and almost blind, he could storm off the elevator, attacking us “young fellows” who, he thought, were complicating his world by advocating relations with Orthodox, evangelicals and Catholics. He loved an argument, spoiled for a fight and took disagreements over values as seriously as he would have taken training for the Olympics. All that was true, and yet he had his supple side.

In that spirit the editors distanced them on February 2, 1938, from facile old modernisms that only wanted to be tied to science and progress. “There is no more pathetic spectacle than is afforded by those liberals of the old school who still defend’’ this wan theism, they wrote. The editorial admired Martin Niemöller’s Berlin congregation whose power to oppose Hitler came from the very act of worship with use of the creed, “ ‘I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.’ (Its pastor is in jail for affirming this same creed.) No listless verbalism here! The ancient creed has become new!”

On those terms the magazine attacked John D. Rockefeller, Jr., for a New York speech in which he suggested that the church drop creeds, liturgies and devotion for the sake of “unselfish good works”(April 25, 1945). The editorial gave Rockefeller, after a few pats, a strong crash course on the role of belief and worship: “Christianity is not morality, not even the morality of Jesus -- though it inspires morality.” Nor is it philanthropy or social action. Rockefeller should have attacked sectarian misuse of creeds, not creeds per se. This is not faith in the teacher, but faith “which his death and his resurrection” created and evoked, and still does.

This is the Christian gospel, and it is the primary and supreme mission of the church to bring all men into the orbit of its saving power, to declare it to the world until mankind accepts Jesus Christ as the cornerstone, not of the church alone, but of civilization itself.

Accuse the writers of imperialism in faith one might, but not of timidity.

A February 9 follow-up on “Evangelizing the Church” shows as well as anything that when Morrison said “keep it religious” he had a very distinct translation of “religious.” He could be friendly to other faiths, but he could not picture a redeemed world apart from a faithful church. It was time to call the church back “from its wanderings in the wilderness of secular ideologies to its historic and essential character.” Progressivism was out.

Almost never did the magazine refer to “religious revival,” a constant theme after 1952. But once, during the war, the editors pondered foxhole religion and the fact that “every analyst of religious trends in wartime notes a quickening of interest in religion in the minds of many persons who have hitherto been indifferent to it. “In this August 25, 1943, editorial they did not feel called upon to challenge the sincerity of such religion. One could meet God in dire circumstances. A religion that was no good in time of trouble was no good at any time. “But the trouble with such belated discoveries of God in desperate emergencies is that [the converts] discover so little.”

The dramas of war and peace were the plot of these years of The Christian Century. The quieter dramas of the normal circumstances of life made their exactions and offerings week after week. The fidelity of the editors to that somewhat more mundane world strikes me as having been as much a fulfillment of their vocation as chronicling the events of the war. Yes, Dr. Morrison, the legacy you handed over sounds strong and clear to successors: ‘‘Keep it religious!’’ So it was, and so it would be.