by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Think today’s geopolitical situation is scary? John Lawson reminds Barron’s readers about a piece of history that helps place today’s events in proper perspective.
During the darkest days of World War II, facing recent terrible defeats, the leaders of the United States and the United Kingdom did something important that would be almost unthinkable in today’s fevered political culture: They publicly prayed for forgiveness of their nations’ sins. They believed we had to be worthy of the victory over fascism they were asking God to grant.
On a dreary New Year’s Day 1942, praying for national forgiveness was the first order of business. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill motored together from the White House to worship at historic Christ Church in neighboring Alexandria, Va. A master of civil religion, Roosevelt had called for a national day of prayer to be held on Jan. 1, and he chose to observe it in George Washington’s church. The president and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt sat together with the prime minister in the Washington family pew, and the rector included Washington’s Prayer for the United States of America in the service. …
… What is remarkable is what they prayed for after America was attacked, when the whole world was at stake. …
… The threats that confront America today are real. But what we faced in January 1942 was existential, and all the news was bad. Pearl Harbor had been attacked less than a month before. The British fortress at Singapore was close to falling in what Churchill later called “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history.” And the Wehrmacht had driven to within 12 miles of Moscow, threatening to take the Soviet Union out of the war, freeing up a vast German army for other conquests. …
… In the face of these unrelenting blows, and knowing that years of bloodshed and destruction lay ahead, the president issued a proclamation. He appointed “the first day of the year 1942 as a day of prayer, of asking forgiveness for our shortcomings of the past, of consecration of the tasks of the present, of asking God’s help in days to come.”
The national day of prayer was not about nonviolence; it was years too late for that. The New York Times noted that during the service, soldiers with steel helmets and fixed bayonets marched outside the wavy glass windows of the church. The rector, the Reverend Edward R. Welles II—already known for his anti-isolationist views—fully embraced the president’s charge. In a sermon titled “Pardon—Power—Peace,” Welles admonished his fellow countrymen for not mobilizing sooner for the war.
The story might prompt this observer to revisit other accounts of the herculean effort to win World War II.