Book Review: ‘Swords and Plowshares: American Evangelicals on War, 1937–1973’ by Timothy D. Padgett

Book review by Mark David Hall

Since the 1980s, white evangelicals have been among the most ardent supporters of the Republican Party and an aggressive foreign policy. From Ronald Reagan confronting the Soviet Union to George W. Bush and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, they have been more likely to applaud the use of force than their fellow Americans. There have been dissenters—Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo come to mind—but these are the exceptions that prove the rule.

We can speak with some certainty about evangelical views on these matters after 1980 because social scientists have been conducting increasingly sophisticated surveys of this demographic. In Swords and Plowshares: American Evangelicals on War, 1937-1973, Timothy Padgett explores how white evangelicals (hereafter simply “evangelicals”) thought about war and related matters before such surveys existed. Padgett, managing editor of Breakpoint.org, approaches his subject primarily by analyzing articles and editorials in Moody MonthlyChristianity TodayChristian HeraldOur Hope, and Southern Presbyterian Journal (renamed Presbyterian Journal in 1959). He recognizes that this list includes no specifically Baptist, Wesleyan, or Pentecostal journals, and, of course, his study is biased toward the views of the evangelical elites who write for these periodicals.

In spite of these limitations, Swords and Plowshares offers a thorough, accurate, and well-documented account of how evangelicals thought about war and other issues in the mid-20th century. The core of Padgett’s book consists of eight chronological chapters, each of which considers how evangelicals portrayed America’s enemies, described their own country, evaluated the use of military force, and related current events to their eschatological views.

Careful Study and Consistent Counsel

Readers familiar with evangelicals only through crude stereotypes may expect that they uncritically praised America as a Christian nation, demonized opponents, glorified war, and combed the Book of Revelation to understand current events. It comes as a welcome relief, at least to this evangelical, that Padgett is able to paint a different picture. In his telling, evangelical thought leaders “offered consistent counsel to their followers during these difficult times,” and “this counsel was rooted in a careful study of the geopolitical solution and in a devoted adherence to longstanding Christian principles.”

Like many Americans, evangelicals were troubled by the rise of fascism, and like all Americans, they rallied around the flag after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. But even during the Second World War, evangelical leaders were careful not to conflate America with the kingdom of God, and they regularly reminded their followers that they should, in the words of a Moody Monthly editorial, “pray for our foes as well as friends. Ask God to help us to show forth the compassion of Christ in this hour of testing.”

To be sure, evangelicals could get swept up in demonizing enemies—more than one editorial referred to Japanese soldiers as “yellow criminals,” “yellow heathen invaders,” or “yellow pests.” During the Cold War, as Padgett explains, even a sophisticated leader such as Carl F. H. Henry “showed little patience for those doubting the overall effects of the FBI and Congressional committees regarding Communism.” But evangelicals, he points out, were far from alone in using such language and taking such stances.

A major theme of Swords and Plowshares is that “many stereotypes of evangelicals fail to live up to reality.” One exception to this rule is their intense interest in eschatology. But even here Padgett complicates the story. When Israel became a country in 1948, for instance, some evangelical publications “argued for Israeli independence without recourse to eschatological thinking, some argued against the new regime specifically because of their end-time beliefs, and some were either of two minds or downright disinterested.” Moreover, evangelicals did not hesitate to criticize Israel for its mistreatment of Arabs or its assault on Egypt during the Suez Crisis of 1956.

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Source: Christianity Today