In Search of a New American Creed
by Arthur Remillard
Saint Francis University (PA)
Halfway through God and War, Raymond Haberski shares his own close encounter with American civil religion. In 1976, on Independence Day, the author and his family joined millions of New Yorkers to celebrate the American bicentennial. “As I look back on it now,” he reminisces, “that celebration seems to stand outside of time” (p. 98). Indeed, in this liminal zone of swelling patriotic pride, crowds of strangers found common ground in their shared history. In the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, this sentiment was a welcome reprieve from the otherwise divisive tenor of the time. But if we scratch the surface of this expression of American unity, we find the looming presence of war, as the flashes of fireworks replicate exploding artillery shells. And parades and marching bands merely domesticate images of armed troops and battle formations. War is bloody. War is confusing. War is death. But when war moves from the battlefield to the ritual stage, war is sacred.
God and War investigates the sacredness of armed conflict in America, and the thorny issues that this reality brings forth. Raymond Haberski chronicles the civil religious discourse of political leaders and public intellectuals from World War II to the present who have struggled to make sense of the human and material cost of war. From Truman to Obama, civil religious rhetoric tactically replaces the language of loss with the language of sacrifice—sacrifice for a “higher cause,” a nation “under God.” And in public speeches and print culture, the events of war gain transcendent traction by buoying the narrative of American exceptionalism. But, as Haberski shows, there are always dissenters lurking in the shadows. These prophetic figures often ask whether or not a war is just. Or they doubt those who assume that any military conflict is free from moral hazard. To be sure, the bellicose patriot finds his or her dark twin in the gadfly who refuses to accept the status quo.
It is perhaps fitting, then, that Haberski follows his memory of 1976 with a reference to Reinhold Niebuhr, a central and recurring character in the book. While the theologian had died in 1971, Haberski suggests that Niebuhr’s critique of American idealism resonated throughout the bicentennial year. “A common refrain heard from many leaders,” Haberski explains, “was for the nation to redeem itself through humility, to humble itself before God and by doing so to recall that the United States remained a nation under God’s judgment not merely his Grace—principles Niebuhr preached but had rarely seen followed in his life” (p. 99). Here, Haberski sets forth the central tension of the book, an ideological tug-of-war between grace and judgment, between national pride and collective humility, between blind faith and healthy skepticism. The author situates Niebuhr everywhere and nowhere in this tension, since the theologian’s “Christian realism” both affirmed the necessity of war, and refused to conflate God’s will with political power.
Ambiguity notwithstanding, Haberski’s choice to foreground Niebuhr provides a stable guidepost as he surveys the civil religious territory of God, nation, and war. Some voices express very little Niebuhrian nuance. We hear from Billy Graham and Cardinal Francis Spellman, who, Haberski explains, depicted the Cold War as a “battle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness” (p. 64). Similarly, after 9/11, President George W. Bush developed what the author terms, “an absolutist moral theology of the nation” (p. 222). For those sharing Bush’s civil religion, Susan Sontag and her ilk were “un-American” heretics. “Let’s by all means grieve together,” she exclaimed after 9/11. “But let’s not be stupid together” (p. 204). A distinct strength of this book is Haberski’s masterful shifts between competing perspectives. For every reference to George Weigel, Richard John Neuhaus, and First Things, we find counter-arguments from Stanley Hauerwas, Jim Wallis, and Sojourners.
Yet, as the book concludes, Haberski circles back to Niebuhr. He notes that the theologian remains part of the American civil religious conversation, with everyone from Barack Obama to Joseph Loconte of the Heritage Foundation channeling him. War hawks in particular admire Niebuhr’s abandonment of pacifism and advocacy of war in order to temper evil and establish justice. To this, though, Haberski responds, “Niebuhr’s sense of justice did not include endless wars, torture, and preemptive invasions of sovereign nations” (p. 249). Then the author steps out from his historical wizard’s curtain and presents his own civil religious prescription. “Believing in the myths that sustain American civil religion does not require the reduction of civil religion to a theology of war,” he explains. “And critiquing civil religion does not inevitably produce cynicism, for losing national myths can be as dangerous for the health of a people as believing in bad ones” (p. 253). In essence, Haberski calls forth for a new American creed where the voices of both judgment and grace have room to speak, where national pride does not require armed conflict, and where humility always trumps hubris.
God and War
wraps a passionate appeal for a reformed civil religion inside a compelling intellectual history of modern America. The book’s accessibility makes it suitable for the undergraduate classroom. Questions raised by the author will no doubt generate vigorous class discussions. Scholars of American religion will also benefit by carefully reading this book. In addition to offering his own insights, Haberski opens new avenues of inquiry. For example, what would happen if we shifted focus from the metaphorical pulpit to the pew? In other words, what did the civil religion of the “common person” look like in this era? And how would it compare with the intellectuals of Haberski’s study? Yes, the old truism that good scholarship raises more questions than it answers applies to God and War
. This book is a fine accomplishment and welcome contribution to the discussion of American civil religion.
Editor’s note: This is the third post in a roundtable of review essays on Ray Haberski’s book. Haberski will post a response essay on Thursday.