By Joseph Loconte
This is a guest column by Joseph Loconte, associate professor of history at The King's College in New York City. He is the author of God, Locke, and Liberty: The Struggle for Religious Freedom in the West (Lexington Press) and of the forthcoming God and the Great War: J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis and the Crisis of Faith in the Modern Age.
British historian C. V. Wedgwood, writing 20 years after the conclusion of World War I, produced a sweeping survey of a conflict that created a human catastrophe for Europe. She drew her wounding observations to a close with these words: "Morally subversive, economically destructive, socially degrading, confused in its causes, devious in its course, futile in its result, it is the outstanding example in European history of meaningless conflict." Wedgwood's account, however, was not about the deadly conflagration that had engulfed the Continent just a generation earlier. The war she had in mind was fought in the early 17th century. It has been called Europe's last religious war: the Thirty Years War.
In a sense, the conflict of 1618-1648 anticipated the war of 1914-1918. Although it could have remained a regional dispute, the Thirty Years War sucked into its vortex most of the nations of Europe. Like World War I, it was breathtaking in its scope and destructive power. Both wars resulted in startling numbers of casualties, caused massive physical devastation, disrupted local economies, and threatened the social fabric of European civilization.
The Treaty of Westphalia (1648) that ended the Thirty Years War promised to remove religion as a source of political strife. The secular interests of the State would set the course of international affairs. The nations of Europe had finally put an end to wars motivated by religious belief. And then the Great War arrived, and with it the revenge of religion.
From the onset of hostilities, writes Philip Jenkins in The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade, this was a conflict infused with religious themes and ambitions. What might have remained a brief skirmish over ethnic self-determination became something like an apocalyptic contest between the forces of Good and Evil. "Whatever the local agendas, Christians in all combatant nations—including the United States—entered wholeheartedly in the spirit of cosmic war," Jenkins writes. "None found any difficulty in using fundamental tenets of the faith as warrants to justify war and mass destruction."
Jenkins, Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University, has written extensively about the growth of global Christianity. More controversially, in a recent comparative study of Islam and Christianity, he concluded that the teachings of the Qur'an are "far less bloody and less violent than those in the Bible." In The Great and Holy War, Jenkins explores not only the faith-based character of World War I but also its aftermath. Drawing on important primary material, Jenkins lays bare the apocalyptic rhetoric that attended and inflamed the conflict. He provocatively suggests how the war transformed 20th-century religion, and is sober about the staying power of religious faith. Nevertheless, his treatment suffers from a tendency to give too much credit—or blame—to religious motivations at the expense of other, more worldly explanations.
Jenkins is on solid ground when he reminds us that the combatant nations of Europe continued to uphold some version of ancient Christendom: that Church and State were still intertwined and that religious concepts were embedded in the public consciousness. He argues that this heritage contributed to the sanctification of the war effort—and the demonization of the enemy. Later on, he notes, the fiery wartime sermons delivered from pulpits across Europe and the United States invited reproach from the postwar generation.
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