America's Moral Reckoning with War



Raymond Haberski is associate professor of history at Marian University. He is the author of numerous books, including "It’s Only a Movie: Films and Critics in American Culture," "The Miracle Case: Film Censorship and the Supreme Court," and "Freedom to Offend: How New York Remade Movie Culture." His latest is "God and War: American Civil Religion since 1945,' which is forthcoming from Rutgers University Press.

As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, we might assume that the conversation about them and the future of American war efforts will enter a new stage. With a little space from the heat of these battles, we might even expect a moral accounting of these wars. But what would that sound like?

Since 1945, generations of Americans have lived in a constant state of conflict -- not war, necessarily, but something in between peace and the kind of all-consuming engagement of World War II. Thus, Americans have for better or worse slowly come to understand their nation through both the metaphor of war (e.g. the “war on drugs,” “the war on poverty”) as well as through the trials of real conflict. So as some troops come home from overseas, others will remain. As the most intense violence declines, Americans will continue to hear about people dying and killing for their nation. In short, moral questions about war will remain.

Typically such conversations break along the ideological axis of American exceptionalism—America is either exceptionally good (the last best hope of the world) or exceptionally bad (the major source of violence and military coercion in the world). Of course, Americans often seem beholden to the first kind of American exceptionalism in order to ward off the terrible implications of the second. It is not surprising, then, that Americans often simply debate different versions of “America the Good.” In a witty, hard-hitting critique of the strained logic behind that type of American exceptionalism, essayist David Rieff wrote in 2007, “the American consensus has always been and remains that we are not an empire in any traditional sense, but rather the last best hope of humanity -- which, coincidentally or not, also happens to be the most powerful nation in the world.” Rieff calls this condition a “theology of American exceptionalism” and it is, he argues, almost always delusional. Even critics of U.S. policies can buy into this argument because when Americans are faced with tragedies in war (such as in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Vietnam), it is hard to argue against the idea that “the Constitution was an inherently good document.” Or, as Rieff pithly notes, “As the old joke about communism goes, ‘If the facts don’t fit the theory, so much worse for the facts.’” In this way, the United States is indeed an exceptional nation, for even in failure it still succeeds.

And yet, it seems to me that Rieff’s application of theology is a bit limited. For surely we have evidence that Americans do recognize when their nation fails and do debate the immorality of their nation’s actions. In other words, Americans do possess a faith in their nation but it is not quite as one-dimensional as Rieff suggests. In fact, the idea of American civil religion better captures the complexity of the way Americans have understood and debated the moral authority of their nation since the end of World War II.

Civil religion brings together two traditions in American history. These two traditions are perhaps best typified by the symbol of the eagle on the Great Seal clutching arrows in one talon and an olive branch in another, thus representing the powers of war and peace. The inscription famously declares: “Out of many, one.” This symbol captures the promise of American civil religion; a diverse people join together to affirm their nation as a moral entity. At the same time, though, civil religion is manufactured by the same people who wish to use it as a means to evaluate themselves. That arrangement is fraught with peril because civil religion is not a set of laws as much as a set of myths. And yet we know that it is precisely the mythical nature of civil religion that allows people to die for it and to assess the morality of killing in its name. In war the perils of civil religion’s promise become acutely apparent.

The use of civil religion as a historical lens has enjoyed something of a revival lately. Mark Noll and Harry Stout both employed it when looking at the Civil War; Walter Hixson and Andrew Preston found it helpful in wildly different ways when chronicling American diplomatic history; and political theorist Robert Beiner, religious historian (and future HNN blogger) Ira Chernus, and sociologist Philip Gorski have all proposed comprehensive treatments of the term within their respective disciplines.

American civil religion resonates for me because it allows me to grapple with the irony of a nation that is at once good and guilty. It helps me understand the transitions among wars since 1945. It helps clarify how Americans tried to make sense of World War II while they came to terms with the Cold War; how they tried to make sense of the Cold War while coming to terms with Vietnam; and how they made sense of Vietnam while coming to terms with the end of the Cold War and beginning of the war on terror. Civil religion captures the debates between preachers and politicians, theorists and theologians over the destiny of a nation wracked by war. And it allows me to contextualize a tradition of critical love for the nation best represented by the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Randolph Bourne, Reinhold Niebuhr, Martin Luther King, Stanley Hauerwas, and Andrew Bacevich.

In my research, I've tried to raise questions about civil religion as I've tried to document the evolution of the term since 1945. Among the most pressing of these questions is one that will probably never be fully answered but is vital to ask of every generation: what would a genuine moral accounting of a nation at war look like? Abraham Lincoln was the first to recognize the profound irony of America’s relationship to war in terms universally applicable to American history. Through his experience in the Civil War, he saw a particular kind of American tragedy unfold: Americans would find war, at once, both a terrible consequence of their contemporary world and a chance to redeem their nation through martial sacrifice. To my mind, the history since 1945 demonstrates that we continue to live with Lincoln’s observation -- it is his bequest to us.

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