I am aware that employing civil religion has a price. David Sehat’s critique of my book identifies that price: because civil religion gets deployed in multiple ways, scholars who study it can appear to be, at once, frustratingly vague and curiously moralistic. Art Remillard, a scholar who has also written on civil religion, suggests a resolution to this problem—recognizing competing versions of civil religion is the point to using it. That, Art notes, is what I attempt to do in God and War, to “chronicle the civil religious discourse of political leaders and public intellectuals form World War II to the present who…struggled to make sense of the human and material cost of war.” Civil religion can help both explain a recurring historical debate about war and describe the rhetorical tactics of that debate.
In God and War I do not embrace a single, normative version of civil religion, and I do not suggest that there is a single set of ideas or principles that if followed would correct American history. I do suggest that a debate raged over who would determine the meaning of sacrifice in American wars and how that meaning was contested. In that sense, I use civil religion as a way to describe historical change and conflict, just as I see David organizing history around his term the “moral establishment” and Andrew Hartman chronicling history through the “culture wars.” Do we all agree on how we define those terms? Of course not; rather we get interesting studies because we employ contested terms that describe contested histories.
I am grateful to my three colleagues for reviewing God and War because they all identify in different ways the strengths and weaknesses of my attempt to wrestle with the implications of using civil religion. And all three provide critiques that allow me to explain my use of civil religion that by necessity gets left out of the book. There are three basic reasons I use civil religion in God and War.
First, as I researched the topic of religion and war in post-1945 America, I realized that relatively few scholars, until recently, studied the interplay between religion and U.S. foreign policy or, more specifically, religion and war. There are, of course, plenty of people willing to speak about the relationship between religion and war, but as Andrew Preston’s book Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith makes clear, there was no standard text in this field until Preston wrote it. His experience and that of William Inboden, who wrote a fascinating book on religion and the cold war, both demonstrated that it is difficult to discuss the influence religion has on American foreign policy without getting bogged down in the intricacies of particular faith traditions, churches, and denominations that draw one away from being able to discuss the more general effect this interaction has had on American history. Unless, that is, one employs civil religion. In the end, both Inboden and Preston turn to civil religion as well.
Second, as David correctly notes, I look to Robert Bellah’s famous essay, “Civil Religion in America,” for some inspiration. Yet unlike many scholars who have found Bellah’s essay a model for doing or dismissing civil religion, I use Bellah as a historical actor himself, situating him within a history of debate over the moral implications of war. In other words, I do not argue that Bellah developed his version of civil religion as a normative standard we must all follow but rather that he stands within a tradition that includes Lincoln and Niebuhr and Herberg and Neuhaus and others who have grappled with the way that in a time of war Americans rely on a particular kind of mixing of religion and politics to understand the sacrifices made in the name of the nation. And so, I argue in the book that “in the middle of the Vietnam War Bellah had captured the way that war galvanized a moral understanding of the nation—not merely a moral critique of the nation but an accounting of whether the United States might be a force for good to its own people, let alone to other people around the world.” (79)
Finally, I use civil religion to address that contested yet resilient notion in American religious history that America is a nation “under God.” David, in particular, asks me to account for my apparent agreement with Lincoln’s theistic understanding of this notion. Yet, while I do rely on Lincoln to make a point about civil religion, I don’t think it matters if I agree that he might have believed the nation was united under God. Rather, I bring Lincoln into my argument for two related reasons, he developed a sophisticated understanding of how religion and politics mix in a time of war and this understanding became, especially to the people I look at in the post-1945 period, a touchstone in the debate over civil religion. I find Lincoln’s thought crucial to my study because through his particular experience with the Civil War he came both to accept and fear the way Americans found in war both sin and redemption.
This last point is where Andrew and I meet. I have argued previously that my work on civil religion is like the photographic negative of Andrew’s work on the culture wars. He points this out in his review: “The culture wars were a war for the soul of America. Civil religion was recognition that he nation had a soul to begin with.” And even though I do not seek to prove the actual existence of this “soul,” I can’t escape the fact that historical actors suggest its exists and act on that understanding.
Let me end on a note about my use of irony. In some cases, irony affords us a sense of detachment from the subject we study and through such irony we gain critical insight. For example, I find it ironic that American Exceptionalism can withstand repeated failures of America to be the last best hope of the earth. But the irony I find in civil religion is different because rather than pushing me further away from my subject it draws me closer to it. This irony asks me to imagine how the Lincoln of the Gettysburg Address who seems to find national redemption in war is also the Lincoln of the Second Inaugural who came to rue the idea that war could redeem the nation. It is an irony that compels me to address the way Reinhold Niebuhr could be both a hawk and a dove; a patriot and a harsh critic of America. And it is an irony that makes me appreciate the complexities in the debate between Richard John Neuhaus and Stanley Hauerwas over the word “we” in a time of war. I use civil religion because it captures these tensions better than terms that I find too rigid or deterministic, such as religious nationalism or American Exceptionalism. I use civil religion because it has an irony embedded within it that forces empathy for historical actors who might otherwise invite an irony of detachment.
Tags: .USIH Roundtable