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Reflections on Haberski’s God and War

November 27, 2012

This post is a laundry-list of my praise, generally positive observations, and critiques of Ray Haberski’s latest book, God and War.  I know Ray and loved the book, so I wanted to condense all of my thinking on his work in one place.

Praise & Positive Observations

[Note: I’ve put in bold key words and terms for each of my numerical points for ease in skimming.]

  1. God and War presents both topics via presidential policies and rhetoric, as well as the written works of public theologians and public intellectuals. Since it is about war, it is focused on foreign affairs—even though the Culture Wars are covered briefly later in the book.
  2. A key topic, civil religion, and the book’s thesis  are presented and embedded in chapter one:   American civil religion, or its “complicated American national faith” (p. 4), is “a strange beast” (p. 5).  “It can often appear to mean almost anything to anyone at anytime. As a hybrid of nationalism and traditional religion, civil religion has an ideological flexibility that is intoxicating because it is so evocative, elastic, and deceptively complex. Civil religion seems to capture the intersection between faith and civic obligation in a way that allows a mixing of truth claims” (p. 5). The “promise” of civil religion (CR) “is so racked by peril.” American civil religion holds forth a “fundamental irony…the nation lives with a misbegotten confidence born form a union of religion and reason” (p. 5).  Civil religion is a “collection of myths,” about which “there is nothing verifiable” (p. 6).  “It is in war, therefore, that the perils of civil religion’s promise become acutely present” (p. 6).  And the finale of the chapter (pp. 8-9): “Lincoln’s experience has acute implications for our time: generations of Americans who have fought the long Cold War and now the ‘war on terror’ can learn from Lincoln’s attempt to balance the contradictory tendencies embedded in the American proposition—the inclination to beat history chastened by the experience of succumbing to history. That legacy has hung over American efforts to define national purpose as the country has passed from the Civil War to the period following World War II. As during the Civil War, Americans in the postwar era have been at war with themselves as much as with their enemies. …And a variety of public theologians—from Reinhold Niebuhr in the early Cold War to Martin Luther King Jr. during the Vietnam War to Richard John Neuhaus in the early days of the war on terror—found Lincoln’s insights into civil religion so profound that they believed Lincoln set the standard by which all other public theologians are measured. …Americans have long imagined that their nation is good and has a profound role to play in the world, yet, unlike any previous period, the era since 1945 has witnessed a merging of American promise and power to forge a potent civil religion. During the postwar era, American civil religion captured the faith American invested in the promise of their nation and the way that promise manifested itself in American power. …War must change the way Americans understand their nation’s moral authority–its relationship to God.”
  3. In a discussion of The God That Failed (1950), Haberski focuses on Arthur Koestler and resorts to Koestler’s memoirs. The God that couldn’t fail was not Communism but “Western democracy” (pp. 41-42). Brilliant. Civil religion in America, then, involved the uncritical worship of Western democracy.
  4. Haberski does fine on his own defining CR, but Herberg’s Protestant Catholic Jew also does some work for him. Herberg’s notion of “The American Way of Life” is critical to CR and is invaluable for the book (pp. 44-45).
  5. A big theme in the book is that CR, in the political arena, often involves Manichean views (chapter two, pp. 64, 141, 205 (abuse of evil), 237). I am in substantial agreement with Haberski on this. Not that it requires much arm twisting of anyone with a superficial knowledge of the recent history of the American political sphere.
  6. An important dualism within American CR is outlined in relation to Bellah’s thinking (p. 78). It’s that CR can be a source of judgment and inspiration (i.e. the obligation to do good, a spur to “righteous action,” p. 162). It is important to note that even though Bellah is a primary academic touchstone for thinking about CR, he is by no means the only one to address the topic in public fora. While presidents address it indirectly, Richard Neuhaus, Jim Wallis, and others have talked about civil religion at key points.
  7. God and War may offer, on the whole, the best contextualization of President Jimmy Carter’s July 1979 “Malaise”/”Crisis of Confidence” Speech that I’ve seen. Haberski covers the speech directly on pp. 114-116, but the whole book offers an explanation of both how the speech was unique and why it mattered.
  8. In the same chapter, Haberski does an excellent job explaining the rise of the New Christian Right (NCR) in relation to Carter and the events of Vietnam. Haberski explains: “To the NCR, the Cold War was an extension of the moral lessons of World War II. …What happened in Korea and Vietnam…was a loss of will [to stay strong]. …Thus, contra [Martin Luther King Jr.], most of the bishops of the American Catholic Church, and the first born-again president, the NCR saw Vietnam not as a reminder of the moral limits of the nation or the ambiguities of the Cold War but as a conflict that deserved increased commitment and sacrifice. …Vietnam was, therefore, a good fight done badly.” (p. 119).
  9. Haberski is excellent on the Reagan era. He shows how Reagan used CR differently than Carter. Haberski demonstrates Reagan’s desire, despite his rhetoric, to avoid war. Reagan also rejected Manichean thinking (despite his “Evil Empire” speech).  I was surprised at the extensive use and relevance of John Patrick Diggins biography of Reagan.
  10. Important:  As the book proceeds it becomes increasingly clear, and Haberski makes it clear, that CR is fed by a martial spirit. This is especially clear when Haberski discusses President George H.W. Bush’s justification for the Gulf War. Haberski wrote: “Like Bush, most Americans had grown dependent on war to act as an organizing principle in their lives. Without it, their minds substituted self-interest for national duty…” (p. 159). There was a tension between Ares and Jesus in America’s Christianity-based CR. America’s Christianity contained, therefore, a fundamental contradiction in the public square. War had seemed to replace peace-seeking and loving among Christians.
  11. Charles Krauthammer’s political commentary during the last two election cycles has given me given me headaches. Why? His observations often seem off the mark, but he’s still employed by major networks. So it surprised me to see liberal citing of Krauthammer’s commentary and musings in God and War (pp. 133-134, 155, 159-160, 204, 206) on Reagan, Vietnam, the Gulf War, and 9/11.  I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that Krauthammer used to say things that were on the mark and not purely partisan ideology. And that’s why he’s still employed today.
  12. This has come up in other reviews, but I especially appreciated Haberski outlining the debate (pp. 165-166, 211) between Neuhaus and Hauerwas about the applicability of “we” in Neuhaus’ discourse about civil religion (i.e. we as Christian Americans or we as all Americans).  Because of the way the book builds, this seems like a heavyweight intellectual bout when it arrives.
  13. When Haberski reaches the Culture Wars (p. 171), it only seems natural to the reader that “war” will be the guiding metaphor in those debates.  Haberski outlines the importance of James Davison Hunter’s 1991 book, Before the Shooting Begins—the theme of which is that “culture wars always precede shooting wars.”  Haberski adds: “The timing of [this] book was crucial. In the wake of the Cold War, America seemed to fall apart. Americans couldn’t agree on anything. …[Rhys] Williams suggested the reason using the term war seemed so apt for this period was not because Americans were ready to kill each other…but because war had consistently helped clarify an American civil religion. Generations of Americans understood their faith in the nation by the sacrifices made by other generations (and perhaps their own) in war. …Williams thought it unsurprising that partisans in cultural debates would resort to war-talk (in addition to God-speak) in order to rally people to their causes.”  …Excellent.
  14. The conservative strain of civil religion utilized by the New Christian Right (i.e. the will must be strong) makes it easy to see how Christians will find affinity with the Neoconservative strain that believed in a Pax Americana (i.e. empire) and a theology of exceptionalism (pp. 190-191). That past history of CR shows how a martial spirit animated conservative thought broadly after the Reagan era. War idealized the nation (p. 198).
  15. Mark Silk is important to Haberski’s book by the time the author reaches 9/11 (p. 200). To know Ray’s full contribution to the study of CR, one would have to know thoroughly know Silk’s arguments.
  16. I loved the notion of a “soft despotism” of CR existing in democracies (p. 204). This was an excellent observation. It shows the power and pervasiveness of CR themes.
  17. By page 214, I began to wonder why, if war is moral renewal to some CR adherents, then do we ever have peace? CR adherents seem to appreciate war because it compels conformity. This is a sad state of affairs, and a natural extension of the history presented by Haberski.
  18. Final comment: I’ve made it through 17 points of praise and positive observations and not once expanded on the prominent role that Reinhold Niebuhr plays in Haberski’s thinking. This is a shame because Haberski shows, definitively, how both proponents and critics of the role of civil religion in discourse about war depended on Niebuhr’s thinking (e.g. for criticism of pacifism and criticism of national hubris in relation certain outcomes of war).  Niebuhr’s thinking is central to the heavyweight debates between Neuhaus and Hauerwas. So there. I’ve fulfilled my obligation to plug the importance of Niebuhr!



  1. What of human rights? It seems that an underlying current in post-war CR is is human rights. To me this is connected to the post-war enthusiasm, however temporary, for world federal government. Related to that enthusiasm was the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). In the 1945-1950 period, human rights offers transnational terrain on which CR might be developed. I recall human rights mentioned in relation to Carter (p. 112). I also felt human rights could have been developed, topically, in relation to Bellah’s assertion that a “global civil religion” (p. 81) might have arisen in the wake of the revolutions of the Sixties.
  2. Could Gerald Ford have been better utilized? Yes, his term was brief, but he was president during the time of national healing (mourning?) following Nixon’s betrayal. And he was president during the Bicentennial.
  3. Given the dominance of Christianity in the United States, one wonders, in a contingent sense, how other faiths (e.g. Mormonism, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, etc.) may have affected the development of CR in the United States. Is Christianity more amenable to CR than other faiths?
  4. Presidential rhetoric is, for the most part, taken at face value in the book, as representative of each president’s actual thinking. Perhaps this can’t be helped, but one wonders about the role of key advisors in speech writing.
  5. Some of chapters do not possess a clear thesis. For instance, chapter three, titled “Civil Religion Redeemed” (pp. 55-97) and covering the Vietnam War, seems to have a thesis in two spots. The first comes about ten pages in (p.  64) when Haberski asserts that “American religiosity made it possible to see the Catholic regime that controlled South Vietnam as a bulwark in the quasi-religious war between the God of the Christian West and the God of Communism.” But the, some pages later (pp. 77-78), when Robert Bellah (pp. 77-78) is discussed, there arises another potential thesis.  Knowing Bellah’s importance to the history of the idea of CR, it at least seemed to me that this was the heart of the chapter and very important to the book overall. In any case, Bellah argued that “there was a chance” the U.S. “might discover the soul of their nation” during the conflict precisely “because they were in danger of losing it.” Plus, Vietnam underscored the fact that there was a “shared assumption” in the U.S. that, “as a nation under God,” there existed a shared “obligation to do good.”  All of this is to say that I had hunt for a thesis in the chapter. I also had a bit of trouble finding the thesis in chapters five and seven.  None of this seriously detracted from my reading, but I’m something of a special case because I’m intensely interested in the topic, time period, religious themes, and characters presented in the book. Haberski also had me from the start because I know, trust, and like him!  But a reader with less interest might get frustrated at a few points.


Although I end with some criticism, please notice the numerical differential between that category and that of praise and positive observations. That says it all. I enjoyed the book immensely. – TL

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  1. Paul permalink

    Your synopsis is very gracious, helpful and serendipitous since I just started the book yesterday having asked my local library to buy it. Never realized local community libraries were so responsive to patrons’ requests, chalk one more up for liberal democratic values.

    In regards item 6 and 10 on your list, can civil religion be an inspiration for projects like the Peace Corps and/or peaceful vocations or avocations that contribute to society but still have the requisite sacrifice embedded in the concept of civil religion?
    If civil religion works only in concert with a martial spirit what does that say for religion as a peaceful contributor to society?

    The concept of civil religion is amorphous, which doesn’t make it any less real but does make it a concept that is venerable to misunderstanding and misapplication. I look forward to the rest of the book even more after having read your notes. Thanks!


  2. Paul: Thanks for the kind words. If you enjoy critical thinking about the role of religion in the public sphere, this is THE book for you. On your question about the Peace Corps, the topic comes up in the book. I think that the answer is a clear yes, that CR can inspire peaceful projects and borderline peaceful projects. I kept thinking about the Boy and Girl Scouts when I read the book. – TL


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