Was World War I a Religious Crusade?
In the land of religious history, Philip Jenkins towers like a giant. Among the many works written by the distinguished professor of history at Baylor University, his history of Christian violence in "Jesus Wars" and exploration of the increasingly global nature of Christianity in "The Next Christendom" were especially influential. But now Jenkins, a contributing editor for The American Conservative with a monthly column for The Christian Century, has catalogued some fascinating observations about World War I. Namely, that this great conflict was a global religious revolution.
Here, we discuss the religious dimension of World War I and his newest book, "The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade."
RNS: You say that World War I was "a religious crusade." This sounds like a scandalous idea. Can you explain what you mean?
PJ: If I myself believed that it was a crusade, that would indeed be scandalous. Actually, I am arguing that a great many people at the time saw it in those terms, which is also scandalous, in a different way.
When we look at the history of that war, we have to be struck by the religious and supernatural language in which it was imagined, throughout the whole conflict, and at all levels of society. This was not just a case of statements put out by propaganda agencies trying to scare up recruits. Nor was the religious fervor confined to the opening weeks of the war, before people knew better.
Throughout, and in every country, the war was presented as a holy war, a cosmic struggle. The war was fought by the world’s leading Christian nations, and on all sides, clergy and Christian leaders offered a steady stream of patriotic and militaristic rhetoric. Many spoke the language of holy war and crusade, of apocalypse and Armageddon.
Without that religious dimension, we cannot understand why the nations went to war, nor how ordinary people imagined the conflict.
RNS: If this is as you say, then why is religion such a minor note in many discussions of and books on World War I?