Swords and Plowshares

American Evangelicals on War, 1937-1973

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Timothy D. Padgett
Studies in Historical and Systematic Theology
  • Bellingham, WA: 
    Lexham Press
    , November
     2018.
     440 pages.
     $25.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781683591061.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

This monograph, Swords and Plowshares: American Evangelicals on War, 1937–1973, is the published version of Timothy D. Padgett’s doctoral dissertation, “Warmongers? Continuity and Complexity in Evangelical Discourse on United States Foreign Policy” (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 2016). The book’s stated aims are to correct the dominant conception of evangelicals as “God-and-country hawks,” and to demonstrate the historical reality of the nuanced and varied estimations American evangelicals held of their nation’s goodness in this period. Challenging what Padgett sees as a “monolithic” depiction of evangelicals as “warmongering nationalists” in American religious historiography, this volume highlights the variety and diversity of opinions held by his subjects, with a particular emphasis on the complicated relationship 20th-century evangelicals had with their America.

Swords and Plowshares is a thorough examination of evangelical attitudes toward war and foreign policy throughout the middle decades of the 20th century, specifically as they were articulated by religious leaders in a variety of evangelical periodicals. Beginning with editorials in the years leading up to World War II, Padgett carefully takes his readers through each conflict, hot and cold, the United States engaged in (or could have engaged in) through to the end of the Vietnam War. There are four thematic foci embedded within each of the volume’s eight body chapters: enemies, America, war, and end times. The individual chapters cover four- or five-year periods, center on potential or presently unfolding conflicts, and delve into the particular ways evangelical leaders wrote about America’s foes, the moral state of their nation, the merits of wars’ methods and aims, and the links between contemporary events and their eschatological expectations. Padgett finds differing opinions and interpretations of bellicose activities, the establishment of Israel, domestic protests, and the eschatological weight and significance of world affairs. These differences exist both over time and within discussions of a specific event.

In Padgett’s assessment, support for American military efforts stemmed neither from an entrenched jingoistic xenophobia, nor from an uncritical alignment with all things American. Instead, generally speaking, the evangelical writers presented in this study saw war as the lesser evil compared to the unchecked spread of totalitarianism, fascism, and communism. In the eyes of evangelical leaders, America, even with all of its significant moral flaws, offered particular benefits and freedoms that should be exported, protected, and promoted abroad.

Padgett’s argument that evangelicals between 1937 and 1973 were not a monolith of opinion is well-supported and rests on a solid foundation of his primary sources. Basing his research on various periodicals was a strong choice; these sources allow Padgett to access in-the-moment reactions to contemporary events that other materials published after the fact would not. While there are limitations to knowing how well the voices of writing leadership represented or influenced the views of the reading laity, religious periodicals do form a textual meeting place for leaders and laypeople that other types of primary source materials do not. Given the extensive, detailed attention Padgett gives to the sources he does include, his decision to limit his discussion to certain Reformed-affiliated periodicals within the broader evangelical publishing constellation is an understandable, if somewhat arbitrary, limitation of scope.

Throughout the volume Padgett weaves in a corrective to a supposedly pervasive view of evangelicals as a monolith of pro-American bellicosity. This construal of evangelicals may very well exist, perhaps especially in the general popular imagination. However, Padgett does not sufficiently establish the pervasiveness of the depiction he attempts to counter, neither amongst his subjects’ contemporaries nor within the historiography on this religious public. This leaves the corrective premise of his work undersupported.

Padgett takes great pains to establish how evangelical critiques of America’s “enemies” were based on political differences rather than die-hard nationalism or outright xenophobia. But when overt nationalism or xenophobia amongst evangelicals incontrovertibly arises in his narrative, Padgett’s analysis falls back to a rather unsatisfactory “they were men of their time”–type defense (e.g., 58). The rhetorical strategy used by Padgett is one that minimizes culpability when it is demonstrable. Padgett’s stated objective of reforming the portrayal of evangelicals would be better served if he better attended to incidents that are an exception to the rule his book attempts to establish.

As it stands, his treatment sweeps far too much under too small of a rug. It also leaves the tension between the two evangelical postures of going along with popular American sentiment and serving as noted critics of American culture under-explored. A more robust treatment of the instances where the attitudes and evaluations of the book’s central characters were in harmony with those of Americans generally would have brought some interesting discussion to the fore and further served Padgett’s aim of presenting a complex, nuanced view of 20th-century evangelicals and their politics.

Overall, this volume is effective in its descriptive task, even if there is more rehearsal than analysis. A more thorough revision of the material between its dissertation and monograph forms may have allowed for stronger presentation and made the implications of Padgett’s research clearer. This is somewhat understandable, given the widespread academic pressures to publish a monograph as quickly as possible after completing one’s PhD, often leaving little by way of time or resources for a robust revision of one’s dissertation. That said, Padgett’s attentiveness to his sources and his willingness to dive into nuance have resulted in a volume that addresses pre–Moral Majority evangelicalism and that will be of interest to those who want to know more about shifts and specificities within the American evangelical worldview.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Allison E. Murray is a doctoral candidate in the History of Christianity at Emmanuel College, University of Toronto.

Date of Review: 
October 31, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Timothy D. Padgett is Managing Edtior of Breakpoint.org.

Keywords: 

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