U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Roundtable: Sehat on Haberski’s *God and War*

Civil Religion: Who Needs It?
by David Sehat
Georgia State University


The very phrase “civil religion,” the subject of Ray Haberski’s God and War, commits its author to taking on several different projects simultaneously. The book is therefore written on several levels, some of which are more effective than others.  At its most general, this is a history of religion and politics from the Second World War to the present.  Slightly below that level of generality, this is a history of American foreign policy and military engagements from the Cold War to the Iraq War.  And at its most specific, this is a book about conflicting conceptions of American civil religion.  This last project is the one that Haberski intends his own book to be about. 
The basic problem is that civil religion has no real definition, or at least no stable definition.  It entered the American political discourse in a wildly successful 1967 essay by Robert Bellah.  Surveying the demise of consensus in the face of Vietnam, Bellah fretted that American society was coming apart.  He proposed a renewed civil religion, a new conception of American ideals, beliefs, and symbols, to heal the fractures of war. 
But almost immediately after Bellah proposed the term, it was taken up into political discourse and used in wildly different ways.  Some conservative religious commentators believed that civil religion was a form of idolatry, a worship of the state instead of God.  Others of a more ecumenical bent took it to be the expression of a lowest common denominator of religious expression.  This shared religious framework, ecumenicals insisted, created a unity out of diversity that held the nation together.  Still others used it in a more sociological sense.  Civil religion in this definition consisted of secular symbols, rituals, and genuflections such as the national anthem and the pledge allegiance to the flag.  And, finally, people such as Richard John Neuhaus used civil religion as a synonym for public theology, the moral framework that is available to all people because God worked his rules and laws into His creation.
God and War is, at its best, a history of this intellectual dispute about the meaning of civil religion.  But Haberski did not just focus on the contestation over these different meanings.  He also asserted his own normative definition into the book in a way that I found both unpersuasive and confusing. 

He begins the book with Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural.  For Haberski, Lincoln provides a model conception of American civil religion in this haunting address.  Trying to make sense of the Civil War, Lincoln wondered if perhaps the massive death in the war was a judgment from God for the sin of slavery.  In invoking Lincoln, Haberski agrees with him that the nation is united under God.  What that means is that it courts His judgment and can, particularly in war, lose its soul.  Civil religion in this sense is essential for Haberski in his conception of the United States. 
But even after reading this book, I’m still not sure that civil religion is all that.  For one thing, its multiple meanings suggest that it is more a rhetorical posture than an analytic category.  And because Haberski uses it to explain the thought of people who never used the term (like Lincoln), there are too many times in this book when you can never be sure just what Haberski is talking about.   Take this example: “Before Vietnam, American civil religion had been primarily about grappling with the spiritual stakes of the Cold War—steeling the American soul for the ideological conflict with communism.  After Vietnam, American civil religion would contend with a national soul in shambles”  (p. 90).  Haberski’s statement raises all kinds of questions.  Leaving aside whether the nation has a soul and whether that soul can be first steeled and then shattered, what does civil religion mean in the above statement?  Which definition is in use at that moment?  I have no idea.  The general fogginess of this passage suggests that civil religion is just not sharp enough to do the work that Harberski wishes it would.
Still, Haberski offers a fairly straight-forward pattern of conflict that saves this book from its conceptual confusion.  Throughout his account, Haberski shows the way that political leaders and their allies marshaled religion for nationalist and often militaristic purposes.  They “treated the notion that the United States was a nation ‘under God’ as if religion were a natural resource.  It provided unlimited virtue for Americans, warded off the detrimental effects that came from living with the remnants of unbelief dredged up by the Vietnam experience.”  But these politicians, Haberski laments, never “showed any intention of acting as if the nation was under God’s judgment.” (p.146).  And on the rare occasion that politicians have done so—think Jimmy Carter—they were punished for it. 
The heroes of this book then are not the politicians but the dissidents, those people like Reinhold Niebuhr who maintained an ironic detachment in the face of war, Will Herberg who lambasted the shallowness of mid-century religion, Martin Luther King Jr.  and Abraham Joshua Heschel who objected to the American involvement in Vietnam by appealing to transcendent values, and Stanley Hauerwas who has asserted, again and again, that Christian ethics are for the Christian community, not the nation. 
The best parts of this book, and I really loved them, are the ones in which Haberski shows people squaring off about the proper role that religious ideas should play in directing the nation.  This is especially true almost every time Richard John Neuhaus comes up.  Haberski is now writing an intellectual biography of Neuhaus, for which we will all be thankful once it comes out.  We get a sense of that biography here.  Neuhaus was the person most responsible for the advancement of the term civil religion through the 1980s and 1990s.  His version, though it changed over time, meant something like a public theology that drew upon revealed Christian ideas that were applicable to everyone. 
Yet Neuhaus was consistently hammered, first by the liberal evangelical Jim Wallis, and then by Stanley Hauerwas, over his notion of civil religion.  The basic question in these disputes, and the basic question about the proper relationship of religion and the state in general, was, in Hauerwas’s words, “Who is the ‘us’?”  (p. 164).  “Your rhetoric,” Hauerwas complained to Neuhaus, “mixes ‘we Christians’ with ‘we Americans’ in a way that I think compromises our ability as Christians . . . to help our non-Christian fellow citizens realize the story of righteousness they associate with being Americans is deeply problematic.” (pp. 164-165).
What I like most about this response is that Hauerwas does not confuse the national community with the religious community.   He does not confuse the thick axioms of a religious tradition with the thin and minimal conceptions of moral obligation that guide the national community.  This, it seems to me, happens all to often when people talk about civil religion.  It is a rhetoric that acts to advance religious power while claiming a kind of consensus.  
But Haberski ends the book with a declaration of civil religion’s indispensability.  It is, he tells us, “the only way to acknowledge that we still need to believe in something worthy of the sacrifices that have been and will continue to be made in the name of the nation” (p. 254).  I see in this statement what I so often see when people start talking about civil religion: Christian theistic assumptions being smuggled into a debate about how people in a pluralistic nation can live and die together. 
So, Ray, why again do we Americans need civil religion?______
Editor’s note:  This is the first post in a roundtable of review essays on Ray Haberski’s book.  Haberski will post a response essay on Thursday.

One Thought on this Post

  1. I look forward to reading Ray’s book God and War. In my understanding, civil religion is best recognized by what it does. It is not political theology or public theology, which is the purview of theologians attempting to provide theological categories for political involvement by believer. It is not political religion in which ideologies attempt to replace all other religious belief i.e. Nazism. Civil religions can be more benign but often necessary tools of the modern state to secure citizen loyalty to fight wars and die for the nation. These tools include language, symbols of reverence, myths, rituals, and practices that evoke the worthiness of the state and sacralize the political and social order. People will die for ideas and when the state is an idea worth dying for you have civil religion. In the U.S., the founding documents as an articulation of fundamental civic values and the celebration and sacralization of them is civil religion. Not to practice such civil religion, in which the difference between the Right and Left are erased, through belief in the founding documents, pledge of alliance, voting, supporting the troops (if not the war), and observing veteran’s day places one outside the bounds of America. In practicing civil religion all, right and left, are Americans.

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