U.S. Intellectual History Blog

War and the ‘We’

Recently, Andrew picked up on Charles Taylor’s view of the theological crisis at the center of the culture wars. I have been looking at the same sort of thing from a slightly different angle and thought I might join Andrew in the historical accounting. To get a grip on what I see as a theological crisis of Amerian civil religion in the post-Vietnam era, I used a debate between Richard John Neuhaus and Stanley Hauerwas precipitated by the Gulf War.

President Bush knew that Vietnam had shocked many churches, Catholics in particular and some evangelical Protestants, into taking up positions that were at least very suspicious of American military policy and operations, and that during the Gulf War, such suspicion was apparent. Even the Bishop of his own church remained “unconvinced” by Bush’s moral argument. The war also raised a broader question that addressed both Bush’s traditional use of the just war doctrine and his hope for a new world order. Pacifist and influential theologian John H. Yoder believed the question was not whether a war was just or not, but whether the system Bush employed, let’s call it moral unipolarity, could “foster restraint.” In short, could Bush’s moral vision “say no to a particular war?”

The role churches played in the debate over Gulf War turned on a discussion involving civil religion that had emerged early in cold war. Yoder’s question suggested that there were two competing realms of moral thought about the war: the first was Bush’s system of beliefs that he used to take action; the second was the larger system of judgment under which Bush’s actions would fall. In other words, who or what would judge the actions that flowed from Bush’s moral vision?

In the early cold war, Eisenhower, in particular, made it clear that he believed the United States was indeed a nation under God, but not necessarily beholden to any one religious or church-based interpretation of that judgment. As President, Eisenhower called upon churches and religious leaders to help Americans make sense of the existential struggle against communism, but he understood that moral authority could not be the province of churches alone–the nation had its own repository. Thus American civil religion was a source of moral authority useful for dealing with the imperative that Ike believed emerged during the cold war, including, if necessary, going to war. Yoder wrote in the Christian Century that he saw the moral debate over Bush’s actions “as a test of whether the entire just war mode of moral discourse is adequate to guide the responsible citizenship of people who claim that their first moral obligation is to the God whom Jesus taught them to praise and obey, and their second to the neighbor, including the enemy, whom Jesus taught them to love.”


Richard John Neuhaus attacked that position in a long editorial in the Wall Street Journal that both defended Bush’s application of just war theory to the Gulf, and dismissed religious leaders who disagreed with the impending action there. Neuhuas explained: “The council’s condemnation of allied action in the Gulf was entirely predictable. The council and the bureaucracies of its chief member churches were thoroughly ‘radicalized,’ as it used to be said, in the Vietnam era.” From that time forwarded, mainline Protestants and a few Catholic Bishops had become as Neuhaus and his First Things colleague George Wiegel had said functional pacifists. Neuhaus pointed out, though, that few of these leaders possessed the intellectual rigor to subscribe to philosophical pacifism. Rather, “in their view, justice is typically on the side of whatever force is hostile to the U.S., whether in Latin America, Africa, Asia or the Middle East.”

Neuhaus had captured the conflict at the heart of this debate—what was the proper relationship was between Christian intellectuals and the nation? Stanley Hauerwas had an answer. As a Protestant theologian with strong preferences for John Howard Yoder’s views on pacifism, Hauerwas was a somewhat unlikely figure to be a rising start in the debate over religion in America. But he did more than merely express pacifist views, like Neuhaus, he too thought civil religion was a great game, only he believed its success was destroying Christianity. Hauerwas sat on the editorial board of the conservative religious journal First Things. Neuhaus was the founding editor of the journal and, by 1991, had converted to Catholicism and been ordained a priest. In a letter to the journal Hauerwas took issue with Neuhaus’s op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. Cleary he had picked up a conversation that the two theologians had engaged in previously.


While Hauerwas argued that Neuhaus had mischaracterized pacifism, a broader issue surrounded this exchange. Hauerwas challenged Neuhaus on the legacy of Reinhold Niebuhr. It had been a few years since Niebuhr’s ideas had played a role in public debates. He died in 1971 a staunch opponent of the Vietnam War amidst profound doubts about the legitimate prosecution of the war by the United States. But during the Gulf War, Niebuhr’s thought—especially his critique of pacifism during World War II–was used to defend the war. In other words, Niebuhr became an intellectual crutch for those employing World War II analogies. For religious intellectuals like Weigel and Neuhaus, it was time to stand up to the Hitler of 1990s and decry pacifism in a way that echoed Niebuhr’s stand in the mid-1930s. And yet, as Niebuhr surely would have pointed out, his thought had limited application in 1991–after all he made his arguments about pacifism at a time when the real Hitler threatened millions of people.

The key to understanding why both Hauerwas and Neuhaus called upon Niebuhr can be reduced to one word: “we.” Niebuhr employed the universal “we” in one of his most famous essays, when he declared that the Christian church was not pacifist in the face of Hitler—why “we” needed to defend Western civilization in the midst of the great totalitarian threats of the 1930s and 1940s. Niebuhr played the part of a great public theologian in times a grave crisis. Hauerwas and Neuhaus had emerged by the last decade of the twentieth century as candidates to succeed Niebuhr. In his Wall Street Journal essay, Neuhaus had used a construction that resembled Niebuhr’s exclamation against pacifism; Hauerwas pounced on this. “The crucial question is,” Hauerwas argued, “who is the ‘us’? Your rhetoric,” he told Neuhaus, “mixes ‘we Christians’ with ‘we Americans’ in a way that I think compromises our ability as Christians to be a people with habits necessary to help our non-Christian fellow citizens realize that the story of righteousness they associate with being Americans is deeply problematic.”

For Hauerwas, the “we” or “us” in the debate over the application of Christian doctrine starts and largely ends with those who profess devotion to the church, not those who are needed by the nation to help make sense of secular actions with religious language. To make this point plainly, Hauerwas told Neuhaus, “you continue to presume that Christian ethics is to be written in a manner that makes it accessible to those in power…In contrast, I assume that Christian ethics is to be written first and foremost for Christians in the church, some of whom may find themselves in political office.” To Hauerwas, Niebuhr and Neuhaus grew too close to those in power and by doing so compromised the power of the one who sat in judgment over them all. Hauerwas challenged Neuhaus and his allies: “Consider…the difference between your [Neuhaus’s] application of the [just war] theory and its use to inform penitential practice by Christians for the examination of conscience. The latter use requires the presumption that when Christians kill their souls are in jeopardy. In contrast, your use of the theory does not presume that salvation is at stake or that the church exists as part of that salvation. All you assume is the nation-state in a system of nation-states.” Hauerwas lumped Neuhaus in with his general critique of Niebuhr—neither spoke as Christian theologians but as American theologians who were Christian. The distinction was crucial.

By the early 1990s, Neuhaus had developed an intellectual trinity of sorts between himself, his church, and his nation. This trinity had started on the left and had drifted rightward politically over time toward what might be called an anti-anti-Americanism in the late 1970s and 1980s. Neuhaus had presented a clear alternative to Jim Wallis in the late 1970s and by the 1990s, it seemed that Hauerwas had become the next sparing partner. Wallis had offered a fairly consistent reading of America’s sins stemming from the nation’s behavior in Vietnam through to its consumerist ethos of the 1980s. Hauerwas, though, pushed Neuhaus to articulate a different kind of understanding of the relationship between a theologian and the nation. Whereas it was relatively easy for Neuhaus to dismiss Wallis because Wallis stood opposed to almost everything Neuhaus was, Hauerwas considered himself a conservative theologian like Neuhaus. And for this reason Hauerwas tested Neuhaus’s public theology from the inside. That was why Neuhaus took particular exception to Hauerwas’s argument that a Christian ethics is first and foremost for Christians and not necessarily accessible to all Americans unless those Americans follow Christ. In response to this challenge, Neuhaus spoke about a notion fundamental to American civil religion–that America was a nation under God. As such, this view “assures a certain correspondence, albeit disordered by sin, between His will and human reason and the laws of nature. As a result, ethics grounded in and thoroughly compatible with Christian faith is ‘accessible’ also to non-Christians. It is, in other words, a public ethic.”

In the 1990s, Neuhaus waged battles on many fronts in the culture wars. But one that I find especially significant was his attempt to use the Gulf War as an occasion to recreate the ‘we’ he believed had disappeared. Neuhaus and Haerwas would retunr to this debate over ‘we’ a decade later, but would come to an impasse that, as far as I know, they never repaired.

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Ray: I’m sure you’ve thought of this already, but I’ll make a connection explicit to others who might not yet have thought of it; namely, this mixing of ‘we Christians’ with ‘we Americans’ has also applied to the abortion debate (with difference specifics, of course). As David said, great post! – TL

  2. Ray: Great post for understanding the nature of “American” Christianity and its confused enmeshment with the nation.

  3. Ray: I’ll echo the others in saying nice post. Curiously, though “The Naked Public Square” needs to be considered a formative text in the culture wars, Neuhaus is not mentioned very often in the texts I examine relative to my research on the culture wars. And yet in your research on civil religious discourse in relation to America at war, he is ubiquitous. I wonder what explains this? Thanks.

  4. Thanks to you all for the encouragement. Tim, I hope to take up your point at greater length on something that focuses just on Neuhaus. But your comment leads nicely toward Andrew’s comment.

    Andrew, your observation confirms what we have chatted about informally–we’re working on parallel projects. The culture wars and the “real” wars of the same era have not really been handled in studies at the same time. I think Neuhaus fails to elicit much attention because he attempted to argue from what HE considered a position that hovered high above the mudslinging. And somewhat like the neocons, I think he saw different ways to “win” the ultimate war over American morality in ways that were quite different from his allies among Christian evangelicals.

    Again, I think there is a good deal to be done on how war was used to undermine the vibrant and vital debates that took place under the culture wars.

  5. A terrific post on a really interesting issue.

    While reading your analysis of the way in which two conservative theological thinkers tried to think about the nation state in relationship to their theology, I kept thinking about the importance of theological (or quasi-theological) conceptions to so many Americans’ understanding of their own national identity. Or to put this another way: for many Americans in the late 20th and early 21st-century, nationalism is necessarily a matter of civil religion.

    Given such assumptions, those like Hauerwas who want to see Christian ethics as existing alongside, but outside of, the nation state itself will be at a deep disadvantage in public debates against not only people like Neuhaus, but also people like Wallis, who in an odd sense also expects the American nation state to live up to a standard of Christian ethics (even if they believe that it almost never does).

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