The terrorist attacks in Paris have a prologue. A century ago, the religious order unraveled within a very short space of time. The Paris attacks are one outcome.
This past Friday evening, terrorists—some with AK-47s, some reportedly with bombs strapped to them—attacked sites throughout the French capital, including a stadium where a soccer match was underway. ISIS claimed responsibility.
ISIS terrorism is one outcome of the First World War, a conflict Americans are generally unfamiliar with. Exactly 100 years ago, a conflict initially thought to last no more than six months was stalemated in its sixteenth month. The Western Front featured a trench system running 475 miles. Along that span, the trench lines did not move more than a few miles in either direction between 1914 and 1918. Home to several million fighters, it was “grotesquely, one of the world’s largest urban centers.”1
It was also the world’s largest killing field. Over the course of four years, the conflict took the lives of an estimated 9.7 million military personnel and 6.8 million civilians. It also destroyed much of Western Christianity, according to Philip Jenkins, Professor of History at Baylor University. As he shows in The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade, most of the nations on both sides of the conflict invoked the name of Christ in their quest.
In 1916, for instance, a group of 60 leading U.S. clergymen, including preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick, evangelist Billy Sunday and John Hibben, president of Princeton University, rebuked Woodrow Wilson for not leading the US into the European conflict. They warned that a just God, “who withheld not his own Son from the cross, would not look with favor upon a people who put their fear of pain and death… above the holy claims of righteousness and justice and freedom and mercy and truth.”
Arthur Winnington-Ingram, Bishop of London, implored soldiers to “kill Germans” in this “war for purity.” Russians invoked the name of God, as did a German pastor in Bremen who likened the war to “a New Pentecost.” On the Eastern and Western Front, Christian images championed each combatants’ cause. “The First World War,” writes Jenkins, “was a thoroughly religious event, in the sense that overwhelmingly Christian nations fought each other in what many viewed as a holy war, a spiritual conflict.”
After the war, explanations based on religious belief declined because the destruction had been so vast. This had profound consequences for the church. It launched apocalyptic interpretations of history among evangelicals, giving rise to the End Times movement. New seminaries were launched, including Dallas Theological, with the then-novel idea that Christ’s saints would be rescued or raptured before the final cataclysm.2 They gave impetus to modern-day evangelicalism with its emphasis on evangelism as the primary task since the world was doomed to get progressively worse.
The war also had profound consequences for Judaism and Islam. The 1917 Balfour Declaration, signaling Britain’s support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, led to more than 100,000 Jews migrating to Israel between 1919 and 1930. This stirred the fires of jihad in Islam, along with the effective end of the caliphate in 1924 when the last caliph, Abdülmecid II, left Constantinople to reside in France.
Changes like these are why Jenkins concludes that World War I “destroyed one religious world and created another.” I would recalibrate that a bit. The war destroyed one religious world and began to create another. The 1920s sparked a resurgence of Islamist fundamentalism. It also kindled Christian fundamentalism, with Christians evacuating leading institutions to create parallel (inferior) institutions such as “Christian” schools, books, and films to protect believers from the big, bad world.
Another outcome was the first hint of religious “nones” and exiles. In 1919, the British churches issued a despairing report noting that “Christianity and the churches have failed, are out of it,” and “disliked.” Christians were becoming disenchanted with the church. Those outside the church began to view the faith as been there, done that.
We didn’t feel the full effect of these outcomes for a while. The market crash of 1929 caused the world to hit the pause button. World War II focused attention on defeating fascism (but note the absence of religious invocations and images). In 1954, the stock market returned to 1929 levels. The decline of religious belief resumed—in mainstream churches (1960s) and more recently in evangelicalism (2000s). The 1973 Arab oil embargo began to redistribute the world’s wealth, underwriting various Islamist groups committed to jihad. And now we’re seeing a significant rise in religious nones and exiles.
In William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Antonio urges Sebastian to murder his sleeping father to become king. The moment is ripe. “What’s past is prologue.” All that’s happened up to the present is prologue to a great future. Philip Jenkins draws the same lesson from World War I. If the religious order of a century ago could so quickly unravel, “the religious world we know might indeed be turned upside down within a very short space of time.” This seems to account for the recent rise of religious nones, and exiles as well as ISIS, which is committed to reestablishing the caliphate. That requires jihad. If Europeans and Americans weren’t so ignorant about history, they’d see how Paris is another horrific instance of how the past is often prologue.
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1 Philip Jenkins, The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade (New York: HarperOne, 2014), p. 43.
2 James H. Moorhead, World Without End (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011)