World War I (which ended on November 11, 1918) has been called “the end of illusions.” There were many illusions. One, in particular, has suffered a slow death.
Yesterday marked the 100-year anniversary of the Armistice ending World War I. Signed at 5:00am, it called for a ceasefire effective at 11am. In that six-hour window, 2,738 men from both sides were killed, more than 8,000 were wounded.
That’s a snapshot of the scale of slaughter over four years. At least 8.5 million soldiers were killed on all fronts, probably a million more. More than 21 million men were wounded. In Britain, 41,000 men had at least one limb amputated, another 10,000 were blinded, and 65,000 were still receiving treatment for shell shock ten years after the war.
Civilian war deaths were higher, estimated at 12 to 13 million. This doesn’t count the Russian civil war, estimated at 7 to 10 million. Add the great influenza pandemic, directly connected with the war. The first outbreak (spring of 1918) was at a large army base in Kansas. The following months saw shiploads of American heading for Europe. When the pandemic finally ended, the final death toll was estimated at 50 million or more.
Small wonder historians say World War 1 marks the end of illusions. Some were silly, such as the cavalry lance. British Generals had long argued that cavalry charges, holding high the cavalry lance, would frighten opposing armies into fleeing. German machine guns made mincemeat of that. The lance was retired as a combat weapon in 1928.
Trench warfare was another illusion. Long favored as the way armies advance, the machine gun decisively shifted a massive advantage to the defender, who could hold his position indefinitely. This accounts for the four-year stalemate—and slaughter.
The British Empire was an illusion. It suffered a slow death over the 20th century. Alfred Milner, Britain’s colonial secretary, read daily reports after the war detailing the empires’ gradual unraveling. “The man of no illusions,” as Churchill had once called him, was facing the death of one of Britain’s greatest illusions—the Empire itself.
But there’s one illusion suffering an even slower death. Philip Jenkins, a professor of church history, says World War I marks “the end of faith itself.” He’s referring to the politicized faith of Protestant churches. Throughout the war, a majority of them on all sides of the conflict had arrogantly claimed God was on their nation’s side.
Karl Barth was horrified at this. In 1914, as a young theology student in Switzerland, Barth wrote how he “suddenly realized” this faith “no longer held any future.”
Mainline Protestant churches read Barth. In the 1920s, as attendance began to drop, many switched to liberalism from triumphalism, hoping to stem the decline. Didn’t work.
As liberal churches declined, new evangelical movements sprang up on the “fringe,” Jenkins reports, offering a privatized faith free of political entanglements. These churches enjoyed spectacular growth beginning in the 1960s. But many evangelical leaders noticed they were outsiders in politics. So they repeated the liberal illusion and became politicized—but this time lurching to the right. Today, an overwhelming percentage of white boomer and genx evangelicals align with the Republican Party.
And now, like politicized liberal churches in the 1920s, politicized conservative churches are in decline. In the late 1990s, surveys revealed that evangelical churches were growing mainly by transfer. For every new megachurch, hundreds of smaller churches were shrinking or closing. In the aggregate, evangelicalism was beginning to decline.
The decline is steeper among millennial evangelicals disillusioned with the politicized faith of boomers and genxers. I think this is an encouraging trend, as coming to the end of any illusion begins with feeling dis-illusioned with the reigning paradigm. Of course, the direction these millennial evangelicals head is anyone’s guess.
I’d encourage them to return the historic Christian faith, holding in tension the inherent goodness of politics with our fallen tendency to idolize good things. Politics comes from the Greek polis, city. Politics is part of making flourishing cities. Politicization isn’t. It turns politics into the end-all for all cultural change. Politicization turns politics into an idol. It doesn’t yield flourishing. It’s an illusion that’s suffering a slow death. May it rest in peace.
 c.f., Adam Hochschild, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012)
 Philip Jenkins, The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade (HarperOne, 2014), 2.
 William Chadwick, Stealing Sheep: The Hidden Problems of Transfer Growth (InterVarsity, 2001)