The Soul of the Nation
by Andrew Hartman
Illinois State University
The nation was born when people committed to kill and die in its name instead of for God. Or so goes one of the major arguments put forward in the theoretical and historical literature on nationalism, beginning with Eric Hobsbawm’s Nations and Nationalism and Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities. There are several important qualifications to this general rule, the existence of theocratic nations like Iran for instance. But among modern nations committed to Enlightenment values, this tenet has tended to hold steady in how scholars understand nations. The major exception, of course, is the United States. The first nation born of the Enlightenment, America has nevertheless always been one of the most religious nations on Earth, so much so that many Americans have believed their nation one with God. Conflating God and nation is otherwise known as “civil religion.”
Ray Haberski’s superbly written book God and War is a valiant effort to understand the American civil religion, a “strange beast” of an undercurrent in U.S. intellectual history. He writes: “There is a fundamental irony of American civil religion—the nation lives with a misbegotten confidence born from a union of religion and reason.” Haberski’s book is the best at seeking to explain how the modern democratic nation known as the United States goes to war in the name of God; how it finds national meaning in its wars. For this reason, God and War should become a touchstone for postwar U.S. intellectual historians.
Prior to reading this book, I was skeptical that civil religion was an important concept in seeking to understand the intellectual history of American nationalism in the second half of the twentieth century. It seemed to me that when Americans reached consensus on the national purpose, especially in the years between World War II and Vietnam, the non-religious terms of the Cold War were explanatory enough. For every John Foster Dulles who put the nation’s mission in millennial terms there was an Arthur Schlesinger Jr. who understood the nation’s struggle against the Soviet Union in more earthly terms. Along these lines, I remain convinced that American foreign policy is best understood via the lens of economic interests. William Appleman Williams is the best guide to comprehending how the United States got involved in wars in far-flung places like Vietnam. In contrast, Ray seems to agree with historian William Inboden, who argues that religious impulses determine U.S. foreign policy.
And as I was skeptical about the concept of civil religion in the early Cold War, I was even more pessimistic that it might help us understand post-sixties America, when fracture was the norm. In the years after the sixties, years when American history is best understood through the rubric of the culture wars, it seemed that only conservative evangelicals held that America was a Christian nation. “I believe that God promoted America to a greatness no other nation has enjoyed,” Jerry Falwell preached, “because her heritage is one of a republic governed by laws predicated on the Bible.” This type of rhetoric did more to divide Americans than bring them together. Civil religion was a ruse. Even when Americans came together for the cause of war—the Gulf War and the aftermath of September 11 being two prominent examples highlighted in God and War—such cohesion was fleeting at best. Shortly after American victory in the Gulf, Pat Buchanan declared a “cultural war” against Clinton and satanic liberals. And shortly after September 11, 2001, half the nation had turned against Bush and his ill-begotten adventure in Iraq.
In this way, civil religion operated as a sort of culture wars riptide. To his credit, Ray agrees. He writes: “The ‘culture wars’ seemed to mock the idea of civil religion.” God and War has been extremely helpful to my understanding the boundaries of the culture wars. The culture wars were a war for the soul of America. Civil religion was recognition that the nation had a soul to begin with.
But more than anything else, what brought me around to the usefulness of civil religion as a concept important for intellectual historians was Ray’s layering of the different understandings of it. On the one had were those like Falwell who believed the nation was inherently good because it was a nation under God. On the other hand were those like Lincoln and Niebuhr who had a more ironic understanding of civil religion, those who had complicated views of America in relation to God and war. In this way, Ray understands irony as a form of critical self-reflection. Lincoln and Niebuhr, the heroes of the book, believed they must fight their wars. They believed fighting their wars was the right thing to do and that their conduct must accord with Christian principles. They concluded that their religion played an important role in how they framed their wars. But these ironists never assumed they were acting in the name of God.
At times, I must confess, it was hard to see how the ironic notion of civil religion was even civil religion to begin with. But Ray’s analysis of it made for fascinating reading.
Tags: .USIH Roundtable