While watching the reports about the mid-term elections, there was one person I looked forward to seeing. Not Jim Lehrer, or Chris Matthews, or even John Stewart; no, I looked forward to Tom Brokaw. Why? Because I thought he might bring up one issue that seemed forgotten—war! In an op-ed in the New York Times on October 17, Brokaw thumped his point: “The United States is now in its ninth year of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, the longest wars in American history. Almost 5,000 men and women have been killed. More than 30,000 have been wounded, some so gravely they’re returning home to become, effectively, wards of their families and communities.” On Tuesday night, while the likes of Michelle Bachmann chanted about taxes and…taxes, Brokaw took a moment to remind his colleagues of the “blood and treasure” squandered by the wars on terror. But in the midst of a yet another round of the culture wars, real war got lost.
By calling attention to war, we might hope to have a vigorous debate about its costs, too. In the question and answer period that followed James Kloppenberg’s talk on Barack Obama as a pragmatist, Jackson Lears pointedly critiqued Obama’s handling of the war on terror. While we might find reason to admire or, at least, be sympathetic to Obama’s handling of the economy, health care, and education, his handling of the war on terror has been, Kloppenberg noted, deeply distressful. This exchange suggested that Obama’s failure might indicate a deficiency in his pragmatic thought. Might it also suggest a hole in our intellectual history? In other words, if the battles against Obama in the mid-terms illuminate the cultural wars, what does this failure to contend with real war reveal?
I asked this question knowing that we have intellectual histories of the culture wars, for an incisive treatment of this subject see the work of my USIH colleague Andrew Hartman. The significance of the culture wars, as Andrew writes in a blog posted earlier this year, is the “multiplication of mini-grand narratives.” We are awash in ways to explain the purpose of our age, our nation, and ourselves. The culture wars might not be good for politics but they do raise fundamental questions about the identity of the nation—this fractured, contested identity. Except, it seems, when we go to war. We dismiss each other’s view about art but, according to polls, agree on the heroism of American troops; we war over who gets to interpret the history of the nation but have faith that the nation, even when it is at war, is essentially good; and we wield religious views like weapons but find it entirely appropriate for our political leaders, in a time of war, to lead us in prayer. But in a dangerous twist, where the culture wars force us to recognize differences in ideas, wars tend to blur those differences until we become like Michelle Bachmann—in a trance, mouthing slogans.
Given my configuration above, what we have is an era of “multiplying mini-grand narratives” that has developed and continues to develop alongside and in some cases in relation to a grand narrative of war. The latter has an intellectual history, too. And we might investigate the irony of that history through the concept of civil religion.
The touchstone for thinking about contemporary versions of American civil religion remains Robert Bellah’s 1967 essay, “Civil Religion in America.” Reading Bellah in light of our recent wars, what struck me was not so much his defense of civil religion but the fact that civil religion seemed most relevant and apparent to Bellah in times of war. The heart of his argument relied on the significance of what he called “times of trial.” He concluded that the United States did not fight wars for higher ideals as much as find its ideals in the wars that it fought. In short, American civil religion was forged in war. Sacrifice in the war for independence made apparent a civil religious covenant among Americans. The Civil War incarnated that civil religion through a massive blood sacrifice (to summarize Harry Stout’s recent application of Bellah). World War II certified the promise of civil religion through heroic sacrifice on behalf of ideals embodied by the original American covenant.
The postwar period offered a new twist to the evolution of American civil religion. This was an era in which the notion that America was a force of good in the world went from functioning basically as an abstraction to a historical proof. Because the United States has been in an almost constant of war and because for the first time the abstract notion of the American promise had unprecedented American military power behind it, American civil religion grew exponentially more significant and more dangerous.
Bellah wrote his original essay in light of Vietnam, a war, he argued, that did not disprove the idea that the nation could still be a force for good in the world. Out of the depths of one of the most divisive periods in American history, Bellah offered one of the most attractive versions of American civil religion as a historical proof, arguing that “American civil religion is not the worship of the American nation but an understanding of the American experience in the light of ultimate and universal reality.” In short, Americans not only had a common creed that unified them but they also had a tradition of using that creed to evaluate their nation’s actions. In parlance that became popular following World War II, the United States was a nation “under God,” meaning, as Bellah explained, “the will of the people is not itself the criterion of right and wrong. There is a higher criterion in terms of which this will can be judged; it is possible that the people may be wrong. The president’s obligation extends to the higher criterion.”
Bellah suggested a way to claim moral authority in a time of moral tragedy by making adjustments in light of that higher authority. However, Ben Alpers, another colleague of mine at USIH, reminds us in a recent post that Randolph Bourne’s admonition regarding war haunts us. Bourne’s critique of pragmatist support for war included things familiar to us today: the cost of war in treasure and blood; the misguided expectation of a “gallant” war; and the contradictory logic that if a “war is too strong for you to prevent, how is it going to be weak enough for you to control and mould to your liberal purposes?” But perhaps Bourne’s most incisive observation was his lament that pragmatists led by John Dewey believed they could calibrate the techniques of war to the advancement of democratic values. In other words, winning a war made it possible for a philosophy of the good to flourish.
Yet, as Bourne so succinctly put it: “war always undermines values.” Indeed, calibrating values to technique in a time of war invites tragedy. And Bourne’s insight is devastating given our current predicament. Contemporary America is dangerously well-equipped to experiment with technique and tragically uninterested in contending with the psychic damage war has on its values. While our planners fiddle with troop levels, drone attacks, and secret-ops, thousands of soldiers stand to lose their lives for a war of almost no consequence. And while our electorate consumed its politics like so much tea, the wars have consumed at bit more of the national soul. Bourne castigated the young intelligentsia of his day for its infatuation with the technocratic side of war; in organizing for war they had forgotten to give much attention to reasons for fighting it. As our conversation about the role of intellectual history continues, is there a way to theorize war as we have the culture wars? Is there way to answer the call of Randolph Bourne and, of course, Tom Brokaw?
 Robert Bellah, http://www.robertbellah.com/articles_5.htm.