Religion, World War II

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The devastation of World War I loomed in the background for Americans when war began in Europe in September 1939 and when the United States moved to assist Britain prior to entering the war in December 1941. Many members of the clergy realized in the wake of World War I that they had been duped by propaganda, and they recognized that the lofty principles over which the war was fought were never achieved. Making pledges to resist all wars, they cried, "never again," even when the shadow of Nazism fell over Europe. Religious groups resisted American entry into the war. That resistance set off a wide and intense debate about intervention. The Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and his colleagues encouraged intervention, but they were the minority. Most mainline Christian groups opposed entry. Fundamentalists, meanwhile, looked to see if this would lead to the end of history. However, the attack on Pearl Harbor made the debate irrelevant.

Religious groups rallied to support the Allied cause during World War II, as they had during World War I. They sent their sons and daughters into the military, accepted shortages as a matter of course, worked in industries that fueled the war machine, and prayed for safety and victory. If anything, Americans were confident that the Allied cause was right and that the enemy was wrong. God would therefore vindicate them.

Yet religious groups responded to the war with surprising reservation and ambivalence, too. In deliberate contrast to the zealous, jingoistic support they had displayed during World War I, American religious organizations were careful to hold fast to the ideals of peace, justice, and humanitarianism during World War II, even if it meant criticizing the American government. They ministered to the spiritual needs of the nation and supported the war effort, yet without abandoning their commitment to religious principles that transcended the war effort. They exhibited a cautious patriotism.

Still, American entry into the war did not mitigate the concerns that many religious groups had about the war itself. They tried to walk a fine line between support and criticism, cooperation and resistance. For example, Christians, Jews, and Buddhists entered the military in unprecedented numbers. Like their fellow citizens, they proudly joined the military and fought the enemy. Religious groups also sponsored some 10,000 military chaplains and initiated various ministries in and around military bases. But they also advocated the rights of conscientious objectors, whether or not they belonged to the historic peace churches.

During the war religious groups also expressed concern about human rights. Some religious leaders, especially from mainstream churches, protested the segregation of blacks in the military, even joining the "Double V" campaign to secure victory for civil rights at home as America fought for victory abroad. They argued that a war to protect democracy should also advance the cause of democracy on America's soil. As a result of this protest, the military did begin to desegregate, as did war-related industries. Religious groups criticized the government for the unjust internment of Japanese Americans on the West Coast, however unsuccessfully, and they also initiated ministries in those camps to relieve the suffering. A number of Japanese-American students attended church-related colleges during the war as a result of this initiative.

Military strategy also came under scrutiny. There was widespread debate over the policy of saturation or obliteration bombing, though without sufficient force to alter the military's policy. The debate heated up when America used the atomic bomb, raising questions about whether the possibility of a just war had become a historic relic. The Holocaust only reinforced this sentiment. Religious leaders, like the public at large, were suspicious of the reports about the genocide against the Jews, assuming that no civilized nation could conceive of doing such a thing. Instead, they thought such reports were just another example of Allied propaganda. Then the truth was discovered for all to see. Suddenly the cost of war became apparent, which only reinforced the importance of making future wars less likely.


During World War I religious groups were responsible for meeting not only the spiritual needs of the troops in training camps and overseas, but their recreational needs as well. Their aim was to foster the comfort and morale of servicemen and to keep them away from negative influences such as prostitution and gambling by providing social activities, entertainment, and "a home away from home." The major organizations involved in this work were the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), the Knights of Columbus, the Jewish Welfare Board, and the Salvation Army. The programs conceived and developed by these organizations had a major impact on the well-being of American soldiers, sailors, and marines.

The YMCA, which had been serving troops since the Civil War, provided 90 percent of all social services (then called "welfare") to the American Expeditionary Forces in Europe, using nearly 13,000 men and women workers in France alone. In addition to conducting religious services and counseling, it established Rest and Recreation (R&R) facilities, canteens and post exchanges for battle-weary servicemen, conducted athletic programs, and mobilized entertainers to perform overseas. Several thousand huts and tents were operated by the YMCA as well as twenty-six R&R leave centers in France and over forty factories for the production of candy and baked goods. The YMCA also advised and entertained men aboard transport ships and did humanitarian work among prisoners of war.

On a smaller scale, similar work was done by the Knights of Columbus, a fraternal Catholic organization, which provided chaplains to Catholics and offered recreational services to all members of the armed forces regardless of race or religion. The motto of its clubhouses, both in the United States and abroad, was "Everyone welcome, everything free." Many of these clubs featured ballfields and boxing rings, and major sports figures were brought in to work there.

Social and recreational services for Jewish servicemen were provided by the Jewish Welfare Board, which was established by the Young Men's Hebrew Association (YMHA) during its effort to enlist rabbis for service at military posts. Its workers were welcomed by the YMCA to assist in conducting general religious services.

Although the Salvation Army sent relatively few workers overseas, it won recognition for the quality and efficiency of its service there. Its four hundred huts, some on the front lines, offered home-cooked cakes, pies, and especially doughnuts, and the women officers provided a clothes-mending service. Like the YMCA, it operated a system through which men could send money home to their families.

After the war, it became apparent that the work done by the religious groups was an indispensable element of military operations, and much of it was taken over by the military itself. In World War II, the civilian volunteers who provided social and recreational services to the troops did so through the United Service Organizations for National Defense (USO), a private charitable organization that was created under the leadership of six groups, some religious and some secular, to serve as a link between the military and the American people.

Sylvia Engdahl

American religious leaders did not want to be caught off guard at the end of the war as they had been during World War I, assuming America could once more return to business as usual. Even before Pearl Harbor, they had begun to talk about "a just and durable peace." Religious groups organized committees, often chaired by high-profile leaders like future Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, to study and propose peace plans for the postwar world. The Methodist Church included over one million of its members in study groups to explore this issue.

This intense commitment to a just peace had a positive outcome. Religious groups supported plans for a United Nations and massive aid to rebuild Europe and Japan. They also developed new programs that would revitalize religious faith in America and around the world. The assumption was that democracy could not survive without a vital religious faith and a strong church. Thus religious groups started campaigns to reach nonreligious people, both at home and abroad. The postwar boom in religion is evidence of that effort.

World War II provided religious groups with an opportunity to express both their patriotism and their commitment to religious principles. War, however, often produced tensions between these two ideals. American religious groups supported the war, but not at the expense of their commitment to human rights, a just peace, and a renewed church.


Fox, Richard Wightman. Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography. New York: Harper and Row, 1985.

Marty, Martin E. Under God, Indivisible, 1941–1960. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Ross, Robert W. So It Was True: The American Protestant Press and the Nazi Persecution of the Jews. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1973.

Sittser, Gerald L. A Cautious Patriotism: The American Churches and the Second World War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Toulouse, Mark G. The Transformation of John Foster Dulles: From Prophet of Realism to Priest of Nationalism. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1985.

Gerald L. Sittser

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Religion, World War II

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