Missionaries, representatives of the Federal Council of Churches, and delegates from the newly formed American Jewish Congress converged on the Versailles peace conference in 1919. Like their secular counterparts, religious interest groups discovered that a humane international order was more easily promised than attained. The fate of Armenians in the disintegrating Ottoman Empire provided a brutal case in point. Protestant missionaries had tried unsuccessfully in 1894 and 1895 to secure Western military action to halt Turkish pogroms. They pressed their case again after the Ottoman government orchestrated the killing of hundreds of thousands of Armenians during World War I. Wilson rejected armed intervention but would accept Armenia as a U.S. mandate under the League of Nations mandate. Congress quickly dismissed this proposal.
No event associated with religion during World War I proved more consequential for U.S. foreign policy than the British promise in the Balfour Declaration to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The question divided Zionists and non-Zionists within Judaism. Reform Jews in particular thought a full-fledged state might prejudice their status as U.S. citizens. Protestant missionaries were adamantly opposed because they expected a hostile Arab reaction that would, in turn, disrupt their own efforts. According to Secretary of State Robert Lansing, Christians would resent control of the Holy Land by the "race credited with the death of Christ." Nonetheless, Wilson gave early and repeated support to the Zionist cause.
Ultimately, World War I changed American religion much more than religious beliefs or activities affected the conduct of the war or the shape of the peace. There were noteworthy organizational consequences. The Federal Council of Churches asserted itself as the premier voice of the de facto Protestant establishment. More convinced than ever of human sinfulness and Jesus's imminent return, theological conservatives founded the World's Christian Fundamentals Association (WCFA) in 1917. The National Catholic War Council, renamed the National Catholic Welfare Council (NCWC), remained in operation after the armistice. So did the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), which had been a haven for conscientious objectors and pacifist social gospelers.
Even more important, the emotional charge of the war and its offspring, the Red Scare of 1919 and 1920, fueled religious anxieties and animosities. The main clashes involved domestic issues, especially Prohibition, looser sexual mores, and the possibility of a Catholic president. Yet several domestic developments intersected with foreign policy. In 1924 the prevailing nativist zeitgeist eased passage of the Johnson-Reed Act, which sharply curtailed immigration. Amid a nationwide surge of anti-Semitism, the Foreign Service joined other elite institutions in rejecting Jewish applicants on the basis of their religion.
Except for strongly separatist sects, clergy and churchgoers still paid attention at least to some portion of the outside world. Although bitterly disappointed by the defeat of the Treaty of Versailles, liberal Protestants persisted in urging American affiliation with the League of Nations. A handful of social gospelers expressed cautious interest in the "Soviet experiment." Catholic clergy used their pulpits to denounce Mexican anticlericalism as well as atheistic communism. Influenced by a form of Bible prophecy called premillennial dispensationalism, fundamentalists became avid if unconventional students of foreign affairs. They found in Zionism fulfillment of the prophecy that the Jews would regather in the Holy Land shortly before Jesus's return and speculated that the Antichrist might be on earth already in the person of Benito Mussolini.
The evident decline of the Protestant missionary movement during the 1920s looks in retrospect like a pause and an adaptation to domestic and international trends. Few now thought that the world could be converted within a generation and some doubted the right to convert anybody. A Chinese student movement directed specifically against Christianity left many missionaries disheartened; others responded to rising Chinese nationalism by urging renegotiation of the "unequal treaties" granting special privileges to westerners. The modernist philosopher William Ernest Hocking, head of a layman's inquiry into missions that was completed in 1932, recommended against attacking "non-Christian systems" of thought. Theological conservatives in the major Protestant denominations felt no such qualms. Nor did Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists, and Jehovah's Witnesses, all of whom hoped to save at least some portion of humanity. Moreover, in 1912 the American Catholic Church finally authorized an overseas mission society, popularly known as the Maryknolls.
Thus, in religion as in commerce, the United States was not isolated from the rest of the world during the interwar era. What is usually misconstrued as isolationism is the pervasive belief that the United States must keep out of any future European war. This sentiment needed little encouragement to flourish, but no group encouraged it more actively than the Protestant clergy. Of 19,372 ministers polled by a pacifist magazine in 1931, 12,076 said they would never sanction a war. Few of these ministers were absolute pacifists themselves. Rather, most were making symbolic amends for their martial ardor in 1917 and 1918.
The coalition Franklin D. Roosevelt created during his presidency was as complex in its religious dimensions as in its explicitly political aspects—and foreign policy was central to the complications. Roosevelt himself was an Episcopalian with an uncomplicated faith in God and a genuine commitment to religious tolerance. His supporters included a large majority of Catholics and Jews, southern theological conservatives still loyal to the Democrats as the party of segregation, and a small but vocal minority of Protestant modernists attracted to the Soviet Union and the Popular Front. Opponents included a distinctive religious right. These Protestant and Catholic theological conservatives viewed the Roosevelt administration as a subversive conspiracy and some of them considered it the American arm of an international Jewish plot.
Roosevelt's strongly anticommunist Catholic constituency required constant attention. The hierarchy and press in particular opposed the president's recognition of the Soviet Union in 1933. The Good Neighbor Policy appealed as an entrée for the American church in Latin America, but complications soon arose. The administration seemed too neighborly to the Mexican revolutionary government, whose anticlericalism sometimes turned into outright persecution. Moved by ten thousand letters, a probable congressional investigation, and the approaching 1936 election, Roosevelt quietly urged Mexico to curb its anti-Catholicism.
When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, Americans overwhelmingly favored neutrality and legislation banning arms sales to either side. The Catholic clergy pointedly preferred a victory by the insurgent general, Francisco Franco, despite his alliance with Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. Lay opinion was less monolithic. According to a Gallup poll in 1938, 42 percent of Catholics sided with the Spanish republic. Nonetheless, wariness of Catholic political power reinforced Roosevelt's decision in 1938 not to seek an end to the arms embargo, an action that would have benefited the loyalists. Meanwhile, liberal Protestants criticized Catholic priests for tilting toward Franco and far right fundamentalists discerned hitherto unobserved merit in the Roman church. Similarly, religious appeals, loyalties, and animosities affected the tone of the debate about American participation in World War II. In urging aid to the Allies in the 1939–1941 period, Roosevelt said—and perhaps half believed—that Germany planned to abolish all religions and create an international Nazi church. Even clergy, however, typically framed the argument in terms of geopolitics and general morality rather than religious ideas or interests. Protestant ministers who had recently vowed to stay aloof from any European war now endorsed administration policies that undermined neutrality. Nor was there a clear correlation between theology and foreign policy positions. For instance, the anti-Semitic radio priest Charles Coughlin, numerous far right fundamentalists, and the social gospelers at Christian Century magazine all chastised Roosevelt as he moved from efforts to repeal neutrality legislation in 1939 to undeclared naval warfare against German submarines in late 1941. After Pearl Harbor, the major denominations rallied to the flag. They did so with fewer rhetorical excesses than during 1917 and 1918, however, and some prominent mainstream Protestants remained pacifists.
As had been the case with the Spanish-American War and World War I, Catholics trod a distinctive path to the same patriotic destination. They feared from the outset that the European war would promote communist expansion; most also initially rejected aid to the Soviets after Germany invaded in June 1941. Here, too, clergy were less flexible than their parishioners. Responding with varying degrees of finesse, Roosevelt urged Joseph Stalin to ease restrictions on religion, professed to see signs of religious freedom in the Soviet Union, and tried to convince Pope Pius XII to soften his strictures against communism. Some bishops came around to the position that the Soviet people, as opposed to the regime, deserved help in their resistance to nazism. In striking contrast to the prudence of the World War I years, the hierarchy displayed its divisions in public. One bishop spoke under the auspices of the noninterventionist America First Committee, another joined the interventionist Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies, and several sniped incessantly at the president.
In December 1939, Roosevelt named Myron Taylor, an Episcopalian, as his personal representative to the Vatican. Roosevelt hoped simultaneously to court Catholic voters, establish a listening post in Rome, and influence papal pronouncements on the war. Taylor's mission had no significant impact on the pope but did reveal—and probably exacerbated—domestic religious tensions. Only a few Protestant leaders managed to express grudging acquiescence. On the whole, Roosevelt was accused of religious favoritism and chided for violating the First Amendment; theological conservatives discerned a capitulation to satanic popery.
No foreign policy question associated with religion has elicited greater controversy than whether or not more European Jews could have been saved from the Holocaust. American Jews denounced Adolf Hitler's regime from 1933 onward. Once again they found gentile allies—but not enough of them. The level of American anti Semitism reached a peak during the interwar years. Limits on immigration were strictly enforced, often at the behest of anti-Semites in the State Department and the foreign service. Reports that the Nazis had begun to exterminate European Jewry were readily available by late 1942. The president was urged to bomb the death camps, announce plans to punish genocide, and extricate Jews from such inconstant Axis satellites as Romania and Bulgaria. The latter two tactics showed the most promise. Nonetheless, Roosevelt took no effective action until he created the War Refugee Board in January 1944. In short, even after the United States entered the war, greater effort could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives.