By Joseph Loconte

America’s war against Iraq and its larger war on terrorism have exposed deep disagreements about the most urgent threats to international peace and stability. Most observers recognize the new geopolitical reality: rogue states allied with Islamic terrorist organizations to acquire weapons of mass destruction. President Bush describes this new reality in frankly moral terms, calling it an “axis of evil.” The President has put the United States on a course of confrontation with this threat, using military action if necessary. Others dismiss this approach as naive and dangerously moralistic. A new anti-war movement, animated by religious leadership, has emerged to contest it.

We’ve had a debate like this before. In the 1930s, America also faced a new geopolitical reality, this one in Europe: the rise of Fascism. Religious leaders argued fiercely about the nature of Hitler’s Third Reich and how to confront it. The “hawks” reluctantly abandoned their earlier pacifism to endorse all-out war. Yet the “doves” kept up their opposition to U.S. intervention even after the Nazi war machine had devoured half a dozen European states and begun its assault on London. It would take the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor to convince most Americans that the hawks were right.

What is striking is the familiarity of the arguments. Those who condemned Fascism as an “evil” ideology were accused by Christian pacifists of nurturing “adolescent hatreds” against individual leaders. Church leaders scolded America for failing to address “the root causes” of German aggression, which they assumed to be political and economic in nature. The European war was seen not as a fight for democratic values, but as “a clash of imperialisms”-one in which a victory for either side would mean the destruction of civilization. As one Methodist minister put it: “I can see only ruin ahead if the United States becomes a belligerent in Europe or in Asia-ruin for us and for all mankind.”

Meanwhile, the interventionists saw ruin of another kind on the horizon. It was “sheer moral perversity,” they said, to ignore the differences between German Fascism and Anglo-American democracy. The religious hawks derided calls for peace conferences as “a euphemism for surrender.” If the United States failed to act, they warned, the “darkest political tyranny imaginable” would engulf all of Europe. “This is the hour when democracy must justify itself by capacity for effective decision, or risk destruction or disintegration,” they wrote. “Europe is dotted with the ruins of right decisions taken too late.”

The End of Illusions is a series of essays by religious leaders, representing both sides of the question of U.S. intervention in the war, covering the period from 1938 to 1941. This collection represents some of the most important religious thinking of the day about America’s moral obligations in the face of a rising international tyranny. Unlike an academic discussion of “just war” theory, these essays carry a profound sense of urgency and passion. The issues raised by the debate-the Christian case for war, the problem of evil, America’s role in the world-are especially relevant to the contemporary struggle against terrorism and the states that sponsor it. “In the Second World War, we learned there is no isolation from evil,” President Bush told the United Nations in the weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack. “We resolved that the aggressions and ambitions of the wicked must be opposed early, decisively, and collectively, before they threaten us all. That evil has returned, and that cause is renewed.”

As Americans struggle to understand how to participate in this cause, they can learn from both the weaknesses and the wisdom of an earlier generation. The religious thinkers represented in this volume—Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish—sought to became the conscience of a nation on the brink of war. The End of Illusions recovers their key arguments, rich with moral and spiritual insight, which could help contemporary policymakers steer a course between appeasement and holy crusade.

The End of Illusions: Religious Leaders Confront Hitler’s Gathering Storm
By Joseph Loconte
Rowman & Littlefield, 255 pages, $24.95

Joseph Loconte is the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion at the Heritage Foundation, where he examines the role of religious belief in strengthening democracy and reforming civil society.