My 4th of July post is an excerpt from God and War, my book that came out last July and (as many of you have read here) tackles the ironies of American civil religion born from war. (From the beginning of chapter 4).
America is a country made by war. The American War for Independence was the first war for the nation, the first war to create national martyrs, and the first war that revealed the contours of an American civil religion. In 1976, the United States prepared to celebrate the two hundredth anniversary of the American Revolution—a struggle that stood as the lodestar among the constellations of national myths. Abraham Lincoln had acknowledged that in his dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg. And Ulysses S. Grant had marked the occasion of the Revolutionary War’s centennial by marching with four thousand troops through Philadelphia in a celebration of military honor and pride. Gerald Ford, president of the United States in 1976, did not march in a military parade. The horror of Vietnam still hung in the air, deflating any comparisons with the war for American independence. Nevertheless, there would be tens of thousands of parades and celebrations during the bicentennial year, the largest being in New York City. The city hosted Operation Sail ’76, inviting 224 historic ships (the Tall Ships) to sail around New York Harbor while thousands of people floated in a variety of crafts around them and millions of people stood on shore admiring the display. On the evening of July 4, my family and I and millions of other people watched a massive fireworks display light up the harbor and the New York skyline. Looking back on it now, that celebration seems to stand outside of time.
Reinhold Niebuhr would have understood that reflection. American idealism often hovered apart from the experiences that surrounded it, creating a parallel history of the nation. Niebuhr died in 1971 and thus did not witness the inglorious end of the Vietnam War, the scandal of Watergate, and the resignation of President Richard Nixon. Yet, as Americans considered the nation’s two hundredth anniversary in the wake of these disasters, the spirit of Niebuhr’s critique of American civil religion became more relevant than ever before. Niebuhr wrote in The Irony of American History: “[American] idealism is too oblivious of the ironic perils to which human virtue, wisdom and power are subject. It is too certain that there is a straight path toward the goal of human happiness; too confident of the wisdom and idealism which prompt men and nations toward that goal; and too blind to the curious compounds of good and evil in which the actions of the best men and nations abound.” The celebration of America’s ideological founding provided yet another moment to reconsider how the nation’s history played havoc with its ideals. A common refrain heard from many leaders—political as well as religious—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 in public life.
The mid-1970s seemed to offer such a moment of genuine reflection as American civil religion became contrite. The nation had sinned; its evil ways had led it to a moment of truth; war, political corruption, and social unrest were all of one piece—signs of the impending collapse of America into an ungodly, unholy darkness. If the nation were to be saved, it had to be reborn, and American civil religion offered a way for Americans of diverse religious faiths to share in a born-again experience, which, of course, only evangelical Christians traditionally had. But because this had to be a civil religious experience, the meaning of this national rebirth was hotly contested. At base, the conflict pitted those who believed America could be made “moral” again against those who worked to make it less immoral. This fight began amidst the dusky ending of the Vietnam War.