With an attack on Iraq seeming imminent, Christian leaders are asking the obvious question: "Is such a war morally justified?" In a recent letter to George W. Bush, five prominent evangelicals, including Charles Colson and Bill Bright, gave their full approval to a war effort. To bolster their argument, they pointed to America's experience in World War II. "How different and how much safer would the history of the twentieth century have been had the allies confronted Hitler when he illegally reoccupied the Rhineland in 1936?"

On the other side of the fence, 70 American and British church leaders, including Ron Sider and Tony Campolo, recently signed a document declaring current plans to attack Iraq to be "illegal, unwise, and immoral." In a separate article, Sider wrote, "There are two options. We can use power unilaterally to promote the shorter-term economic and political self-interest of America. Or we can seek genuinely to implement the moral principles we claim to embrace and take the lead in creating a better world for all.

Sider sounds a chord that America's heard before. Samuel Moor Shoemaker, rector of Calvary Episcopal Church in New York from 1925 to 1952, is remembered most for his social conscience. He helped formulate the Twelve Steps for Alcoholics Anonymous and transformed his church into a center for rehabilitation and rescue programs for down-and-outers. In the late 1930s, he also provided a home for what became the national headquarters for Moral Re-Armament, an organization that believed war and conflict could be averted if leaders accepted certain moral values.

Shoemaker carried these concerns into his sermons before and during America's involvement in World War II.  On June 25, 1940, he gave a radio address on the topic, "National Moral Defense." "In Europe, men are not just fighting against tanks and airplanes;" he began. "The war is a war of ideas. … You can't explode a bad idea with a bomb, but only with a better idea. … In addition to military defense, we need moral defense."

What did Shoemaker mean by moral defense? His answer: "I mean building up in our people morale, courage, unselfishness, alertness, solidarity, which will make us all useful to America in overcoming her enemies within and without."

It was America's enemies within that interested Shoemaker most. After the country entered World War II, the cleric addressed the nation's cause in several sermons, eventually published in Christ and this Cause. In one of those sermons, "God and the War," he lashed out at the nation's immorality.

"This nation has had the greatest privileges ever given to any nation in all time. America has been God's privileged child. But America has become a spoiled child. We have been ungrateful to the God under whom our liberties were given to us. I believe it is high time for someone to say that this war today is God's judgment upon a godless and selfish people."

Shoemaker did support the war effort; in his sermon, "What Are We Fighting For?" he admitted that the war was a "grim necessity," the means by which nations would once again have the opportunity to choose democracy. But he abhorred any self-righteous cause:

"No war can ever be a clear-cut way for a Christian to express his hatred of evil. For war involves a basic confusion. All the good in the world is not ranged against all the evil. In the present war, some nations that have a great deal of evil in them are yet seeking to stand for freedom … against other nations which have a great deal of good in them but yet are presently dedicated to turning the world backwards into the darkness of enslavement."

This note of irony—cousin to Christian humility—must still be sounded today, even as we fight the dear and present danger of international terrorism and rogue nations wielding weapons of mass destruction. Let no one, Shoemaker would say, confuse a just war with a just nation. The contradictions run too deep for such complacency.

*Read online reports of hawkish and dovish positions Christians are taking on war with Iraq.

Steven Gertz is editorial coordinator for Christian History magazine.