God and The War

By John Turner

Last month, PBS garnered high ratings (though perhaps not as high as expected) for Ken Burns's The War.

Burns's 15-hour documentary garnered some mixed reviews. For example, Alessandra Stanley in the New York Times criticized its political timidity, lack of inclusiveness, and insularity. Burns received a large amount of criticism for not including material on Latino Americans in the film, eventually prompting him to insert (somewhat awkwardly, in my opinion) some compensating footage.

As I watched The War, I occasionally thought about the presence of religion in the film: when a Jewish veteran described his motivation for fighting, when troops prayed on ships before entering combat, and when carols accompanied a wartime Christmas. I appreciated a few subtle touches, such as one of my favorite hymns -- Come Ye Thankful People, Come -- serving as background music to a harrowing Thanksgiving meal on the front.

And while I wouldn't have wanted Burns to splice in material on the subject of religion, the little bits of religion that made their way into the film intrigued me. I found myself wanting to know more about the interconnections between American religions and the war. There was a lot of discussion towards the end of the documentary about how the war indelibly changed those who fought in it. I wanted to know how believing (and unbelieving) used their faith (or lack thereof) to interpret what they saw during the war. Perhaps a chaplain for an interviewee? Religion seemed uncontroversial in the early 1940s -- surprisingly so, even when both Franklin Roosevelt (I think) and ordinary Americans talked about the war as a "crusade." I was curious about some divisions and controversies that might have lurked beneath the surface of consensus.

I don't blame Burns for not including more religion -- he had a hard enough task satisfying diverse groups of Americans. Still, the film made me think that we need more studies of religion and WWII. Gerald Sittser's A Cautious Patriotism, I think, is a good starting place (though I think many groups he paid less attention to dropped the caution), and portions of other books (such as Joel Carpenter's Revive Us Again) discuss the impact of the war on certain American religious groups. Because of Youth for Christ and the postwar burst of foreign mission agencies, the war appears to have been central to the reemergence of evangelicalism in a way not yet fully appreciated. The formation of the National Council of Churches shortly after the war possibly highlighted the height of mainline Protestant clout in the United States. The war certainly helped usher in the Protestant-Catholic-Jew consensus of the 1950s. All of these factors make me think of the Second World War as a critical turning point in the history of American religion, and I'm looking forward to someone writing a book that puts this story together for us.


David said…
Great post, John. I suppose that this would be a great topic to get to work on Paul's challenge for historians of American religion to show how religion makes a difference in the narrative.
Tim Lacy said…
Of course including something about particular sects of Christianity might result in the same quagmire of complaints that occur on ethnic and racial inclusivity. If there's a long section about Catholics, will Presbyterians complain? If there's too much about Baptists, will the Mormons get upset? There's a kind of reductio ad absurdum at work here that makes attempts at a coherent narrative impossible.

My mini-rant aside, I think the virtue of Ken Burns's work was touched on in the post: while not encyclopedic in nature, it makes you want to explore the topic further. As academics, can we rightfully ask for more from any kind of popular history? - TL