"Sinning" against the state.
President Woodrow Wilson, acting as pontiff of the American Civil Religion, "expected the nation's clergy to decorate their churches in red, white and blue and to lead their congregation in singing the 'Star-Spangled Banner,'" recounts Vermont historian Mark Bushnell. "The idea was to encourage congregants to buy Liberty Bonds to fund the war. Across the country, clergy members complied. So too in Windsor, except at Waldron's church, where that Sunday's service was no different than ever."
Waldron, comments Bushnell, was "more a pillar of the community than an enemy of the state." But as a theologically conservative Protestant, Waldron could not bring himself to take up a collection on behalf of what he regarded as war carried out on behalf of an increasingly lawless state. To placate the mob, Waldron "wrapped himself in the American flag and sang 'The Star-Spangled Banner,'" continues Bushnell. But this was only the beginning of his sorrows.
In short order, Waldron was removed as pastor, in part because his Pentecostal preaching style was at odds with the Baptist Church's accustomed mode of worship, but also because of lingering suspicions about his "loyalty."
The following December, a federal grand jury indicted Waldron for violating the Espionage Act. Passed the previous June, that act dictated prison terms of up to 20 years for any act or statement perceived as willfully obstructing "the recruiting or enlistment service of the U.S."
The specific charge against Waldron, an admitted Christian pacifist, was that "he had once been heard to say 'to hell with patriotism.'" This was true, he admitted under oath, but the comment had been made about the cultish nationalism promoted by Kaiser Wilhelm's regime in Germany. "If this is patriotism,"
Waldron had told his acquaintances, "to hell with patriotism." Waldron was eventually convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison, of which he served a little more than a year. He was one of nearly 1,000 Americans sent to prison under the Espionage Act (or the subsequent Sedition Act), and the first to be put on trial solely for his religious beliefs.
Waldron's "crime" was blasphemy against the Almighty State. As historian Richard Gamble documents in his book The War for Righteousness, the "progressive" American clergy of the era "combined a religious faith in progress with a reliance on the state"--and came to view the European War as nothing less than a sacred crusade to democratize the world.
Edward Everett Hale, addressing the 1907 Congress of Religious Liberals in Boston, prophesied that "as the 'United States' is one nation, the united world is to be one empire of the living God." Frederick Lynch, secretary of the Commission on Peace of the Rockefeller-created Federal Council of Churches (now the National Council of Churches), predicted in 1914 that the trend toward political consolidation would bring about a "United Nations of the world." This vision was invoked by many mainline clergy who eagerly enlisted in Wilson's war effort.
Above all else, mainline "progressive" clergy evangelized on behalf of the total state--albeit one devoted to "Christian" objectives. This statist gospel was encapsulated in a poem by William P. Merrill published in the April 26, 1917 issue of Christian Century (just weeks after war was declared on Germany):
The strength of the State we'll lavish on more Than making of wealth and making of war; We are learning at last, though the lesson comes late That the making of man is the task of the State.
What could opposition to such a holy undertaking be, if not blasphemy? Some partisans of the Bush administration and its foreign wars, believing them to be similarly consecrated undertakings, covet a similar opportunity to criminalize dissent by reenacting the Espionage and Sedition Acts. Under those laws, a word idly spoken--or maliciously misconstrued--could be prosecuted as a felony.
Thanks to the efforts of the Montana Sedition Project, that state's governor on May 3 issued posthumous pardons to the 47 citizens imprisoned in that state for "sedition" during World War I. "I'm going to say what Governor Sam Stewart [who signed Montana's sedition law] should have said: I'm sorry, forgive me, and God bless America, because we can criticize our government," declared Governor Steve Milch shortly before issuing the pardons. Those words should have been said decades ago, during America's first global war to export democracy.
The present administration tells us the war to promote global democracy will last for decades. What abuses of liberty will ensue, and how long will it be before a belated posthumous apology is offered to the next generation of victims?