For God and Globe: An Interview with Michael Thompson

Mark Edwards

Michael Thompson is a Research Associate and Adjunct Lecturer at the United States Studies Centre
at the University of Sydney.  He’s also the author of the best single essay I’ve ever read on Reinhold Niebuhr.  The following is a recent conversation we had about his important new book on ecumenical Protestants and foreign relations, For God and Globe: Christian Internationalism in the United States between the Great War and the Cold War (Cornell).  Michael also shares some thoughts on post-World War II evangelical internationalism.

How did you become interested in the topic of ecumenism and Christian Internationalism?

Actually, it all began with that essay you mentioned in your intro—on Reinhold Niebuhr. In that project I was interested in Niebuhr’s theology as it interacted with the changing shape of global politics on the one hand and with the ideologies of American exceptionalism and nationalism on the other. I encountered Niebuhr while taking an excellent Grad seminar on the American National Myth with Neville Meaney, a one-of-a-kind diplomatic historian at  Sydney University. As part of that seminar, naturally we looked at religion’s role in nourishing and sustaining national mythology. We were reading a lot of old school scholarship—Tuveson, Bercovitch, and some newer stuff too (although this was before the religious turn…well before Jon Butler’s famous Jack-in-the-Box call). Niebuhr’s Irony of American History was on the reading list — not the Obama-endorsed 2008 reissue, but the dusty old 1950s edition. This was 2003. Niebuhr first of all didn’t seem to fit into the model of Protestantism-bequeathing-nationalism that  scholarship seemed almost uniformly to convey. In fact, he seemed to be an  insightful critic of that very dynamic—especially when reading in 2003-4 against the backdrop of unfolding operations in Iraq.

But I always had a sense—as I think you did in conceiving of your book—that there was more to Niebuhr’s world than just Niebuhr.  So the present project actually began with a pretty simple desire to follow Niebuhr’s footsteps into the murky world of interwar Protestantism. I suppose at the outset I wanted o use Niebuhr to get beyond Niebuhr. I thought surely this  theologian becoming a public intellectual on matters of foreign policy had to have some context behind him. He can’t have been just some random outlier. And of course, the biographies like Fox's gave hints of that. 

My two-fold question then became i) what kinds of Protestant enterprises devoted themselves to reflecting on US foreign relations, and ii) what distinctive ideas did each such enterprise give rise to over time? As you know, and as other scholarship on internationalism had touched upon (all the more so recently), the sheer proliferation of knowledge production enterprises focused on international relations was a phenomenon in itself in the 1910s-30s. You had the big guns, Chatham House in the UK and the Council on Foreign Relations in the US, but you also had scores of smaller, sometimes more ephemeral ventures that also mattered in their time. International Relations seminars, forums, retreats, institutes, newsletters and much, much more. I became fascinated by this world, especially the Protestant parts (which were usually marginal or absent in existing works on internationalism).

Digging around in the primary sources, and getting across the secondary scholarship, it seemed that there were two distinct but overlapping worlds, often treated by  separate bodies of scholarship. You had the generations-old work on pacifism (Chatfield’s very strong work) or on pacifism versus Niebuhrian realism—Donald Meyer et al. In another sphere altogether you had works on the ecumenical movement—which back then, before your book and Graeme Smith’s, let alone Gene Zubovich’s work—was overall poorly done, and cloistered off in its own ecclesiastical-historical and missiological world. Heather Warren’s book was a helpful exception. But I was struck by several things. One was the way that many actors, Niebuhr included, actually belonged to and ventured into both worlds--the surging pacifist-socialist interwar left and the high ecumenical movement-- in the interwar years. Any new treatment needed to bring the the worlds that were held separate in the historiography back together.  

Another observation that struck me was how much more than mere “pacifism” was at stake in American liberal and radical-left Protestant reflection on war. Christian internationalists, with their missionary roots, constituted an important element  in interwar anti-imperialism, which was something entirely absent from work on anti imperialism and on religion. 

A third thing I was struck by was just how important the late interwar ecumenical movement both in America and Europe was in the production of International Relations knowledge. Just gauging by the personnel involved, and their prominence internationally in the kind of pre-social-scientific, pre-quantitative flowering of IR in the 1940s—Niebuhr, Martin Wight, Alfred Zimmern, Max Huber and others—you could were a  bigger than given credit for. 

So with these observations forming, I began looking for ways to  give shape to the project.

Initially I had planned four or five distinct Protestant enterprises that would structure the study, as well as the The World Tomorrow and the Oxford 1937 ecumenical conference which form the central foci of the book now, I had planned sections on the missionary movement, and on the World War II think-tank as a “genre” of institution. In the end, they are there, but as subordinate parts—Sherwood Eddy illustrating some of the missionary connections in the intro (and in what is a separate essay now in Modern Intellectual History), and the John Foster Dulles-led Commission on a Just and Durable Peace in the final chapter.

So, to answer your question about ecumenism specifically, it was Oxford 1937 that especially drew me in, and still does. I am still struck by the theological and intellectual caliber of the event, and how unlike it was anything that came before it in ecumenism, and how it was so much more than a mere precursor to the World Council of Churches. My sense is that those doing the new history of Christian human rights will address it soon and treat it with the seriousness it deserves. I have tried to do my small part toward that effort—as have you in your book. I’d say there is still more work to be done on it.

In your book, you discuss one ecumenical site familiar to many scholars (the 1937 Oxford Conference) and one not so well known (The World Tomorrow editorial team).  What did each contribute to the development of Christian Internationalism?

 The World Tomorrow was an extraordinary, but ultimately short-lived little magazine with a strong cast of editors—Reinhold Niebuhr, Kirby Page, Devere Allen, plus others coming in and out at various points. It was founded by Socialist leader Norman Thomas, became the Fellowship of Reconciliation’s official mouthpiece, grew its readership under Anna Rochester and Grace Hutchins and was then bought out by the wealthy former missionary and arch-Christian Internationalist philanthropist, Sherwood Eddy in 1926. He was responsible for installing his former YMCA offsider Kirby Page as editor, and in 1928 also brought Niebuhr to New York to help with the journal, while paying for his salary at Union seminary.

The World Tomorrow is, I think, one of the best artifacts of what was involved—the possibilities, difficulties, and tensions, many insurmountable—in attempting to build a  Protestant "left.” I mean that in the Old Left, interwar sense of that word. The editorial team sought to articulate a left-wing politics more radically anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, and anti-nationalist than the Christian Century, an organ better known to readers of RIAH.

 The World Tomorrow was important to the development history of Christian Internationalism for several reasons, but first because of its failure. The editors wanted to stitch together what they hoped was stitchable, but in this case proved unstitchable. They ultimately  faced the impossibility of trying to be all things at once: Protestant social gospellers, missionaries, pacifists, Marxian Socialists, proponents of non-violence, proponents of class warfare,  and from the early 1930s, for some,  self-designated “realists.”  In that sense, I found it  provided a fresh, gritty, "real time"  archive of the messy and conflicted emergence of realism. As well as the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the journal was closely allied in the 1930s, through Niebuhr,  with the Fellowship of Socialist Christians, which was a hugely important hub and site, along with the Theological Discussion Group you’ve so excellently written about, for the articulation of that new sensibility.

But before realism's emergence in the 1930s, The World Tomorrow in the mid-late 1920s was  important for its vigorous anti-imperialism and anti-militarism.  As soon as Kirby Page took over, he devoted special issues to the US in the Philippines (remember that independence was still being debated) and to the US in the Caribbean. He published symposia of prominent legal opinion on the Monroe Doctrine, all with an anti-interventionist edge,  and fact finding reports coming from WILPF and others on the US occupation in Haiti. The journal vigorously opposed the US campaigns in Nicaragua and instead supported the non-state diplomatic tours that many of their fold (including Latin Americanists based at Columbia) organised.

Perhaps even more important was the institutional base and outlet it provided for specifically missionary-rooted anti imperialism. In the great shock waves that swept the mainline missionary movement after World War I, mainline missionaries developed a strident anti imperialism The World Tomorrow was a gathering point for them. Not just Sherwood Eddy and Kirby Page but also Samuel Guy Inman—missionary to Mexico turned Latin Americanist scholar and anti-imperialist—and others were connected.

As part of its opposition to imperialism, militarism and nationalism, The World Tomorrow offered a pretty simple theology, focused on the "historical Jesus," seeing him as needing digging out from underneath all the rubbish of organized religion since Constantine. The real Jesus, not the one of contemporary churches, they argued, stood against the militaristic options of his day (Page was reading new scholarship on Josephus to get at some of this). But the essential logic was “What would Jesus do”? So they ran series of articles, for example, on Would Jesus be an Imperialist? Would Jesus be a Capitalist?…even Would Jesus be a Christian? They essentially wanted readers to  deepen their sense of  Jesus as both ethical example and personal inspiration on one hand, and on the other hand to wake up to the realities of US foreign policy. If readers were more deeply aware of both Jesus and US foreign policy, editors seemed to hope, they would realise the incongruence between the two. They they could join The World Tomorrow in calling their country to heel using their democratic and social power.

On that note, in the book, readers will also find extensive treatment of the public controversy and fame generated by The World Tomorrow's fascinating surveys of 100,000 US clergy on war and peace…surveys that even drew the Chief of Army, Douglas MacArthur, into the debate about whether patriotism or internationalism was more Christian. You can guess which side MacArthur was on. Anyway, The World Tomorrow team loved that sort of oppositional controversy.

As for Oxford 1937, the atmosphere,  the theological method, and the political emphases were very different to The World Tomorrow -- even though many of the subjects in my book were personally involved in both. 

And so too a lot had changed since the 1920s in the ecumenical movement to make Oxford 1937 what it was. The emergence of Nazism, with its pseudo theology and joining of Jesus and Volk, raised the whole question of nationalism and religion to a new pitch.  Ecumenical Christians led by Jo Oldham (John Mott’s Scottish offsider at the International Missionary Council ) made that the central question. What was the relationship between Christianity and the claims of national identity and sovereignty? Could there be a way of theologically articulating a supranational solidarity that stood in protest to nationalisms, whether German, American or French?

In contrast to the anti-church message noises coming from The World Tomorrow, Oxford ecumenists made their conception of the catholicity of the church central to their intellectual and political program. Their move in this regard can, in truth, be seen as a kind of overreach, a kind of grabbing from Catholicism, or neo-medievalism. There is something to each of these claims.  But I think most of all they need to be seen as having a wariness about merely asserting a rationalistic universalism of abstract principles. The Continental Europeans in the ecumenical movement had also long stressed wariness about Anglophone ecumenical tendencies to merely baptise liberal internationalism and liberal humanism, giving the League of Nations a Christian badge. So they tried as an alternative to work intellectually upward from the concrete social reality of the Church universal -- there being a concrete body of believers whose solidarity crossed national borders. I think that that more than anything else was what the word and idea of “ecumene” meant to actors in the movement in the 1930s.

For them, the transnational solidarity of the church (they used the word "supranational”) needed to be recovered as the heart of the Christian  witness in and against a world of hyper-nationalisms. You have to remember the context of the 1930s! This was far and away the most distinctive contribution of Oxford 1937 to the development of Christian internationalism. 

Another related distinctive was the theological register of their political analysis.  Other more mechanistic, legalistic and institutionalist approaches to internationalism-- the League of Nations, the Outlawry of War, World Federation--were not the same, and not to be conflated with Christian internationalism, they insisted.  In a secondary sense, and it was only secondary (you can read the debates and reports to confirm that sense) they advocated for a revived League of Nations as the most preferable option for future international organization. They saw it as a middle option  between unfettered national sovereignty on one hand and the kinds of world-state  ideas being circulated in the late 1930s. But they were never mere League enthusiasts, and in fact at Oxford 1937 several criticized what they saw as the false mystical "religion of Geneva”—referring to those who imbued the League of Nations with a kind of elevated reverence.

Oxford also saw the strong anti-racist elements in missionary and student networks come to the fore of the ecumenical movement, whereas in the 1920s, they had operated in parallel to the more elite Europe-oriented establishment of the Life and Work and Faith and Order movements. In the book, I spend a bit of time going back over the 1920s conferences of the IMC and WSCF to show how they functioned as sites for a vigorous anti-imperialism and anti-racism, especially when seen against the world political climate of the 1920s. Many—although not all— of those earlier emphases became glued to the Oxford 1937 emphases on church-based internationalism. Naturally, the calls to oppose race discrimination as anti Christian  challenged those few American and South African delegates still in favour of segregation!. But Oxford's anti-racism was carried home, notwithstanding the contradictions with segregated churches, and as Barbara Mays has shown, affected the decades-long work of Black activists like Benjamin Mays.

Oxford also cemented Christian realists’ engagement in the ecumenical enterprise. As you yourself know from your work, and as I also illustrate in my book, the main intellectual organizer, Jo Oldham went hard after the cadre of realist theologians at Union Seminary and in the Theological Discussion Group, and gave them major roles at Oxford 1937. My view is that this helped Niebuhr and others mature in their theological reflection, and also saw them further absorbed into the leadership of the movement at home and internationally in the 1940s. 

You talk in your book about the “Americanization of Christian Internationalism” during and after the Second World War.  But wasn’t the Christian Internationalism of a Niebuhr or John Foster Dulles (or even Sherwood Eddy) always Americanized?  What or how did ecumenical Christians contribute to the new breed of wartime Christian nationalism (that we normally associate with evangelicals like Billy Graham)?

Ah, yes! You’ve picked up on one of my more provocative chapter titles. You’re right. Of course, one can’t posit an “un-American” Christian internationalism prior to Dulles’ wartime work.  My meaning there is specific to the argument in Chapter 7, the final chapter, and one devoted to on Dulles and the Commission on a Just and Durable Peace, which achieved extraordinary public prominence and bipartisan political influence.

There “Americanization” has two meanings. One is that Dulles, who was at Oxford 1937 and reportedly impacted by it, was one of the main proponents of ecumenical internationalism in the early-mid 1940s. BUT…and it’s a big but, he ran it all through a filter that ironed out all the theological nuance and dialectical subtleties from the Europeans, and also ran it through a filter that stressed the US experience of  federation between states as a paradigm for overcoming nationalism. His whole mode of argumentation in getting at his famous Six Pillars of Peace paid homage to Oxford 1937 (in the Commission’s early statements), but it really represented a transposition of sorts away from the dialectical neo-orthodox theology  that was at Oxford towards a vaguer assertion of moral principles which the US ought to lead the way in universally implementing. As one German friend and critic put it, the Commission tended to view the world through projecting its own American “imago” onto others. 

The second and perhaps more important sense in which Dulles Americanized Christian internationalism is that he yoked it to the cause of the new bipartisan “American” internationalism. That is, both parties, most conspicuously the Republicans whom he represented were calling for an end to American “isolationism” and a new beginning for American “internationalism”, meaning international engagement. So whereas the critical energy of interwar Christian internationalism had been pointed against US intervention and nationalism, Dulles ironically re-routed its force to promote US intervention. In conflating US state-based internationalism with Christian internationalism—calling for Christians to exert political pressure to see the US play its international responsibilities—he “Americanized” the latter, I argue. The book will explain that in more depth.

That’s how I’d answer the second part of your question, just briefly: Dulles simultaneously lifted the political clout of ecumenical Christian internationalism to its greatest height, but also collapsed the critical distance between it and the cause of the American nation-state. This was the very thing Oxford delegates had warned of…identifying the cause of the nation with the cause of Christ. And yet, by the end of World War II we can already discern the contours of a Dulles who sees the American nation as the unique defender of the cause of Christ, and who calls for Christians to view the cold war in religious terms.

In that sense,  Dulles’ revived Christian nationalism—an ironic progeny of ecumenical internationalism—was an easy ally with the Christian nationalism coming from the networks around Billy Graham and the Christian libertarians we find so well documented in Kevin Kruse’s book.
It’s important to say that Dulles did not represent or bring the entire ecumenical movement with him, but he was one important and influential figure in that particular re-framing, re-constituting of it.  

You conclude that the Christian nationalism of the Cold War era made Christian Internationalism an “alien space” and “lost civilization” (202).  To what extent do you think Christian Internationalist concerns for anti-racism, human rights, and so on went mainstream in “secular” NGOs and INGOS during that time—in ways that scholars such as David Hollinger and Matthew Hedstrom have suggested?  Melani McAlister, David Swartz, Lauren Turek, David King, and many other scholars are today writing about the spread of evangelical internationalism following the Second World War.  Do you see evangelical internationalism having anything in common with prewar ecumenical Christian Internationalism?

Briefly, this a great question, and to be honest, one I’d welcome more input on from readers and contributors at RIAH. At a broad level, I’d say that yes, there is definite translation of Christian internationalist concerns, personnel and outlooks into mainstream “secular” NGOs and INGOs. One straight forward empirical indication of this is the generation of missionary-descended and even missionary-trained Americans in the 1950s-60s who continue their vocational trajectory via secular NGOs, in many cases playing influential roles. And in the broad history of INGOs, of course, it’s hard to avoid the fact of missionaries being so early on already doing such work that was professionalized, secularized and bureaucratised as part of the new Aid and Development foreign policy orientation after Point IV. 

One key area I’ve been doing a bit of work on for example is on the roots of many postwar development operations in interwar agricultural missionary work…More on that another time, perhaps.  But yes, I find both Hollinger and Hedstrom persuasive on this. I’m in accord with them overall.

The question of evangelicalism is mixed, I think. If you take the kinds of anti-nationalist protest coming from the young Jim Wallis and “post-American” crowd evoked by Swartz so wonderfully in Moral Minority, you feel sometimes that you could be reading material from Kirby Page and The World Tomorrow fifty years earlier. I suspect the 1970s evangelical left shared much politically with the interwar liberal, ecumenical left.  But I’m not sure Wallis et al would be too representative of evangelical internationalism. Turek’s excellent recent work also makes me want to look closer at parallels and contrasts on their approaches to US imperial outreach and foreign relations in Latin America.

McAlister’s very textured approach rightly brings to the fore an internationalism that is very global in orientation, is very peace loving and humanitarian, but at times, as she points out, perhaps also sentimentalist. My broad assessment would be that it lacks the self-consciousness about nationalism, about national identity and religious identity being in tension.  I think, overall, it does not have the same caliber of engagement with the intellectual contours of international thought and international relations that we saw at Oxford 1937. So yes, some resonances, but I still feel I’d need to see more in order to be persuaded they aren’t quite different conceptual worlds. 

What are you working on now?

Research-wise, I’m doing two things. One I’m in exploratory stages on a new project on Agricultural missionaries and US environmental internationalism in the long New Deal. Looking at folk like Walter Lowdermilk, a missionary turned soil conservation activist and New Dealer, turned of all things mega-dam proponent.

Second, I’m working for Ian Tyrrell on a big project on the long history of American exceptionalism. There, rather than internationalists, I’m spending a lot of time trying to understand 20th century evangelicals on nationalism. I’m thinking about a paper on how evangelical theology has often made room—at violence to its own axioms—for American exceptionalism. Maybe it will be called “Making Room for America.”

But mainly, I’m actually taking time for the next while to pursue a Masters of Divinity—brushing up on Biblical languages!—and exploring possibilities for theological and pastoral work that might intersect still with history work.  


Lauren Turek said…
Thanks for posting this wonderful interview, Mark! I am so looking forward to reading this book (put my order in for it last week actually), which makes an important and much needed contribution to our understanding of Christian internationalism during this period.

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