This week marks the 100th anniversary of the U.S. entering World War I. Dubbed “the war to end all wars,” many historians say it was instead the war that ended the faith.
The U.S. entered the war in Europe on April 6, 1917 (the conflict began in June 1914). By mid-August 1914, it had escalated into a world war, claiming in two months the lives of 400,000 French soldiers. The slaughter escalated. By year’s end, two million combatants were dead. The former chapel of the French military academy of Saint-Cyr listed its dead for various years. For 1914, it read: “The Class of 1914”—all of it.
The fundamental problem in this war was the rise of the machine gun. It decisively shifted the advantage to the defender, who could hold his position indefinitely. Trench warfare ensued. C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien were two of the combatants. Tolkien was a 24-year-old British officer. The hideous warfare he experienced shaped The Lord of the Rings, where hobbit Sam Gangee is horrified to look into the bog of Dead Marshes. “There are dead things, dead faces in the water,” he said with horror. “Dead faces!”
By the end of the war, the total number of military casualties would exceed 17 million deaths and 20 million wounded, ranking it among the deadliest conflicts in human history.
Philip Jenkins, Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor, says World War I marks “the end of faith itself.” That’s because every combatant nation in the war believed God was on its side. Military chaplain Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy noted that the declaration of war sparked “a run on the bank of God.” Only the Vatican condemned the war.
The Anglican bishop of London, Arthur F. Winnington-Ingram, wrote in 1915 that the church’s explicit duty was “to mobilize the nation for a holy war.” In one sermon, he urged British forces to “Kill Germans—to save the world, to kill the good as well as the bad, to kill those who have shown kindness to our wounded as well as those fiends.” A British Easter card showed the risen Christ walking alongside British soldiers.
A German preacher described the war as the Spirit of God coming upon the nation. It was “a New Pentecost.” In his paper “Sword-Blessing,” Pastor Franz Koehler wrote that the World War will “transfigure our nature, like the Word and Spirit.”
The French produced posters depicting angels watching over the allies. One featured L’Ange au Sourire (The Smiling Angel), a stone statue of Reims Cathedral carved between 1236 and 1245. After the Germans shelled the cathedral, only her head was found. She became an icon of French resistance against “German barbarity.”
Even Americans got in on the act. Former president William Howard Taft believed the “Germans had mistaken the Devil for God.” A U.S. Army poster featured a crucifixion to highlight wartime atrocities, often depicting the victims as attractive young females.
Muslims found all this to be offensive. In 1914, Sheikh-ul-Islam declared an Islamic holy war on behalf of the Ottoman government. He urged his followers to take up arms against Britain, France, Russia, Serbia and Montenegro in World War I. They did.
That same year, Achmed Abdullah, an Afghan Muslim, warned that the war would incite “a coming struggle against Europe and America, a Jihad, a gigantic day of reckoning” to teach Westerners “with the whirring swish of the sword when it is red.” The dechristianization of the West began the next year, 1915, with the Armenian genocide. A century of Islamic determination ensued to “not only to exterminate the Christian population but to remove all traces of their religion,” Jenkins writes.
In 1914, Karl Barth, then a young theology student in neutral Switzerland, was horrified to read of Christians exalting the war. “I suddenly realized that I could not any longer follow their ethics and dogmatics or their understanding of the Bible and of history. For me at least, nineteenth century theology no longer held any future.”
Nor did it for Europe’s leaders. Most disavowed the religious institutions—almost all Protestant—that had aligned with the various combatant nations. There was “an enormous longing for a new world order.” World War II featured almost no religious imagery, as Europe had become post-Christian.
America wasn’t far behind. Spared the devastation of the war, the post-Christian shift was slower. America had spasms of spirituality. First, fundamentalism, then the charismatic renewal, then “premillennial ideas surged,” writes Jenkins, but at the fringes of society, irrelevant but enjoying numerical success, especially from 1960 onward.
In the darkest hours of World War II, Winston Churchill famously said: “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” I’m not sure World War I was the end of the faith. But 2017 is, perhaps, the end of the beginning. If so, the Western church would be wise to recalibrate how long it will take to be taken seriously again. It will likely take decades.
 Philip Jenkins, The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade (New York: HarperOne, 2014), p. 31.
 Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (New York: Penguin, 2005), p. 5.