Was World War I the Last Crusade?

By Gamble, Richard | The American Conservative, July-August 2014 | Go to article overview

Was World War I the Last Crusade?


Gamble, Richard, The American Conservative


The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade, Philip Jenkins, HarperOne, 448 pages

At the end of the First World War, iconoclastic American journalist Randolph Bourne famously warned, "War is the health of the state." He had witnessed the unprecedented expansion of national power in the heat of war mobilization. Twenty years ago, political scientist Bruce D. Porter likewise argued, "States make war, but war also makes states." For the losers, of course, unsuccessful war destroys states, but the hundred years since the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 ought to make the symbiosis between warfare and Leviathan obvious.

Do we find similar tendencies when we turn from war and politics to war and religion? Does religion make war? In the case of the Crusades and the 16th-century wars of religion, the answer might seem obvious. But it would be hard to argue conversely that "war is the health of religion" or that "war makes the church (or the mosque)." Nevertheless, from antiquity to the present day, religion has shaped war and war has shaped religion, sometimes consciously and deliberately, sometimes with consequences evident only generations later, and always with complex twists and turns.

In The Great and Holy War, Baylor historian Philip Jenkins explores this two-way relationship in the extraordinary circumstances of World War I. Known for his sweeping global histories of Christianity, Jenkins explores the religious "mood" and motivations that, in his judgment, pervaded all sides of the Great War. Inexplicably, in the century since the war, no scholar has attempted this sort of comparative religious history of a conflict that did so much to remake Europe, her far-flung colonies, and the United States. Such neglect is unaccountable given how prominently religion appeared in the war's rhetoric and symbolism, whether from official propaganda, belligerent clergy, or common soldiers. Jenkins's volume comes, then, as a welcome contribution to scholarly understanding of the relationship between religion and the First World War and the consequences of that volatile mixture down to the present day.

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In 448 brisk pages, Jenkins manages to cover the major Allied and Central powers, the United States, the Ottoman Empire, the emergent Middle East, Africa, India, and South Asia. He compares the experiences of Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Hindus. He argues that religion entered into the motivations of the great powers as one among many causes of the war, and for Germany and Russia in particular as a driving force inseparable from those other causes. Jenkins leaves no doubt that Christianity, Judaism, and Islam contributed language, imagery, intensity, and even whole theological frameworks to the war and that adherents found their beliefs mobilized from the first shot to the last for the deadliest war the world had yet known.

Jenkins challenges conventional notions of just how secular the West had become by the early 20th century. He shows first that the generation of 1914, both at home and at the Front, carried existing religious beliefs, practices, and expectations with them. Soldiers and their families seemed to find it easy to believe rumors and press reports about the dead rising on the battlefield to fight again, prophecies, appearances of angels, and visions of Jesus himself and the Virgin Mary, such as the famous visitation at Fatima in Portugal. People routinely "biblicized" the war and invoked the aid of such Christian heroes as St. George and Joan of Arc. But "religion" did not always mean orthodox ideas and practices; it often embraced mysticism, spiritualism, the occult, and communication with the dead to find meaning in a world gone mad.

Jenkins also challenges the idea that the war itself was a profoundly secularizing experience for participants. The literature of disillusionment was vast in the 1920s and has become canonical in anthologies, but it created a false memory that either obscured how pervasive religious justifications for the war had been or else treated such expressions as cynical cover for baser material motives. …

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