Slow Death

Michael Metzger

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.[1]

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.”[2] 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.[3] 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.


[1] c.f., Adam Hochschild, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012)

[2] Philip Jenkins, The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade (HarperOne, 2014), 2.

[3] William Chadwick, Stealing Sheep: The Hidden Problems of Transfer Growth (InterVarsity, 2001)


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  1. Mike,

    I appreciate your command of historical context for church history.

    I wonder if part of human nature is that we are hard-wired to have unity between our government and our god(s).

    I am not familiar with a “historic Christian faith” where it wasn’t molested by some unholy union between church and state. Could you clarify the example you intend for this generation to return to?

  2. Hi Gerard:

    God hard-wired us in creation, so we’re not hard-wired for union with gods (nor is the government). We are fallen, however, so our hard-wiring often short-circuits. When this happens, all sorts of bad bed partners result.

    There are many epochs in history when the faith was not politicized. I’d recommend a recent one: The original Clapham circle (c.1790-1833), made up of many fine evangelical Anglicans who never were politicized.

  3. Interesting and timely piece. Thanks, Mike. One of my real concerns about Millenials and Gen Xers is that the heightened ugliness of politic in general in the world today will hinder any sane person from this younger generation from paying the emotional/psychological cost to run for office. At a time when we need our men and women of character to fill these seats, partisanship will require any candidate to endure a rather uncivil discourse of accusations. My fear is the only person who will aspire to this political role will be those driven by an egocentric need for attention. Let’s pray that God’s call for political leadership is clearly heard from those with virtuous characters. I pray that Clapham is blessed in the future to play a decisive role in mentoring this leadership without stooping to the bullying partisanship played by the religious right a couple of decades ago.

  4. Tim Smick, I share your concerns. We need to help our young Christian friends to know that we will support those who are more aligned with their historic faith in Christ than with specific party allegiances.

    Mr. Metzer, thank you for your cogent comments on this history. I have just begun reading The Disruption of Evangelism by Geoffrey R. Treloar, and your comments really fit well with this history.

  5. Antidote to politicization of the gospel: gospel-infused citizenship.

    “Only exercise citizenship worthy of the gospel of Christ.” (Philippians 1:27)

    (Don’t rely on a typical English translation of that verse. Check the Greek language Paul used.)

  6. Mike, this is not only one of your finest pieces, it’s among some of the best writing I’ve read in all venues. Your ability to pull at a thread in the tapestry of faith’s human story–and to stay connected to that thread tenaciously as you march through linear history, gives this piece the power to inform while offering ideas to transform. Thank you for investing so carefully in Slow Death. May I suggest another strand running parallel to yours that served as a catalyst to the changes you so ably note? In the 1880’s, German and French scholars, using Darwin, began to posit doubt about the authenticity AND authority of Scripture, untethering the general population from a certainty they had in Scripture to that point, even when they didn’t practice or live by it. The comfort of a “final authority” on matters of ultimate right or wrong was ripped from the fabric of Western culture at a terrible moment…the run-up to World War I. The theologians of that era despaired in the face of the rampant layers of death, and faith became religion, further enabling the dark sides of the thread you’ve shown us. To oversimplify greatly, religion then abandoned systematic knowledge of God in favor of anecdotal knowledge, making feeling a greater partner in individual religion over knowledge of God. This has progressively dumbed-down faith conversations on all sides, making them about issues rather than truth. “Right and wrong” replaced “knowing God”, hardening the faith-to-religion transition. Religious fatigue and technology then combine to make “long reads” leading back to knowing God almost too large a hill for the average person to climb without help. May God grant Clapham continued clarity and resources to be one of the helpers.

  7. Excellent essay, Mike. I also recommend the 1939 book by T.S. Eliot titled Christianity and Culture. Here are a few short quotes from the book.

    “To identify any particular form of government with Christianity is a dangerous error: for it confounds the permanent with the transitory, the absolute with the contingent” (p. 45).

    “. . . a certain tension between Church and State is desirable. When Church and State fall out completely, it is ill with the commonwealth; and when Church and State get along too well together, there is something wrong with the Church” (p. 71).

    “The Church cannot be, in any political sense, either conservative, or liberal, or revolutionary. Conservatism is too often conservation of the wrong things: liberalism a relaxation of discipline; revolution a denial of permanent things” (p. 76).

  8. Thank you, Glenn, and everyone else who offered their comments. It’s fun to throw out an idea every week and discover how it benefits from better minds than mine!

  9. “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.”

    A hearty amen. Tim Smick, I too share your concern for who might be willing to enter the public fray to serve.

    Thank you Mike, for an excellent and helpful piece.

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