America, God, and War Since 1945
by Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. em. Detlef Junker, Distinguished Senior Professor, Heidelberg University
Individuals and nations in the process of defining their identities seem to have a hard time tolerating the idea of being merely equals of others. They attempt to arrogate to themselves some special significance that is supposed to render them different from, and superior to, other individuals or nations – indeed, to make them unique. In the process, they frequently invoke notions of exalted generality, such as God, History, Providence, Progress, or the Salvation of Mankind – all capitalized, of course.
Like the citizens of so many other empires and nations before them, and even along with them, Americans too have claimed to be a chosen people – chosen by God, of course. The idea of America’s special mission has been a self-evident aspect of its political culture since the founding of the nation. The Founding Fathers were shaped by the spirit of the Enlightenment. They integrated the Christian and Puritanical missionary ideas of New England’s settlers – “the chosen people,” “the Covenant people,” “God’s new Israel,” and “God’s last American Israel” – into the idea of a secular mission for America.
It was this fusion of protestant Christianity and Enlightenment that brought forth the civil religion so specific to America – that unmistakable admixture of Christian Republicanism and Democratic faith that created a nation with the soul of a church. The American nation has no ideologies; she herself is one.
The goals of America’s mission have, of course, varied over time; they have combined with the dominant aspects of the contemporary Zeitgeist only to then decouple themselves from it. They have transformed, moving from the Puritanical mission of completing the work of the Reformation to the political mission of bringing freedom and democracy to the world – or in the words used by President Woodrow Wilson in his declaration of war against Germany in 1917: “to mak[ing] the world safe for democracy.” Thus, the missionary goals of the United States changed from the passive notion of turning America into a new Jerusalem, whose example would be a beacon for the world, to the active missionary duty to elevate backward, less-civilized nations to the American level, to create a new world order, save the world, and bring about the millennium.
In order to be realized, every sense of mission grounded in a teleological view of history requires some concrete negation, some counter-principle, an “evil empire” that has to be overcome, by war, if necessary – to the greater glory of God, the true faith, the nation, the classless society, racial purity – whatever the professed millennial endpoint. The enemy can be the foreign barbarian, it can be the Anti-Christ, or the Christ, the capitalist, the communist, the fascist, or, as has often been the declared enemy, the Jew.
Missionary zeal cultivates a radical dualism; it has to divide the world and its governing principles into good and evil. This dualistic system of beliefs is known as Manichaeism, named after Mani, the Persian philosopher of late antiquity.
After 1945, the continuous struggle of Americans with their civil religion – with the relationships between America, God, and war – has once again intensified. After World War II, the United States experienced nothing short of a religious revival.
Not only did the U.S. spearhead the Western effort in the Cold War against the atheistic communist “evil empire,” in President Reagan’s gravid phrasing, but the U.S. was also almost constantly embroiled in “hot” wars: in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq twice, the air war against Serbia, Afghanistan, various smaller conflicts in Latin America and Africa, not to mention the ongoing “drone war” against terrorists around the world. We can see three consequences from this era of civil religious struggle:
The first consequence:
All presidents, from Harry S. Truman to George W. Bush and Barack Obama, have articulated the relationship among America, God, and War in different ways. As this unfolded over the period from 1945, these successive articulations have revealed the paradoxes of America with particular clarity. The majority of Americans have been and remain convinced that their country has never led a war of aggression, that they have held true to their mission of “freedom” and peace. At the same time, we can see that the United States has become a militarized state with unrivaled military resources and weapon systems on land, on water, in the air, in space, and now also in the digital realm. Throughout, God was always rhetorically there. One could say that an integral part of American culture is based on a violation of the Ten Commandments: I am the Lord thy God; thou shalt not take my name in vain.
The second consequence:
The early Cold War was centrally important for the full integration of non-Protestant denominations into the American mainstream. The enthusiastic participation of some Catholic theologians and other religious dignitaries in the blessing of the American opposition of the Soviet Union helped complete a process that had begun several decades previous, the incorporation of a “Judeo-Christian” identity at the core of the American identity.
The third consequence:
The relationships between God, war, and American civil religion have been the focus of sociologists, theologians, clergy, charismatic preachers, and public intellectuals in a long-running passionate debate that has discussed nearly all of the possible permutations of these relationships, from the deus absconditus to the conviction that God himself would fight alongside America.
Historian Raymond Haberski Jr. analyzes these relationships in his exquisite 2012 book, God and War: American Civil Religion since 1945. Of course, other key writings that set the current debates in motion also appeared in this post-war period. First among these, of course, is Robert Bellah’s epoc-defining essay, “Civil Religion in America,” which, in 1967, gave a name to this concept. Other important titles, and other pieces important for their titles, include: “Civil Religion: A Dialogue In The History Of Political Philosophy”; “Spiritual Weapons: The Cold War And The Forging Of The American National Religion”; and “God’s Democracy. American Religion after September 11.”
After 1945, the political discourse on war and God started with President Harry S. Truman and the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Truman justified his “awful responsibility” to drop the bombs on the two Japanese cities in a prayer: “We thank God that He has come to us instead of our enemies, and we pray that He may guide us to use it [the bomb] in His ways and for His purposes.”
Elements of the justification for using nuclear weapons have been a part of American public consciousness for decades. In 1994, when I took up my position as Director of the German Historical Institute in Washington, the Smithsonian Institution nearly had to surrender to the public unconditionally. One of America’s foremost complexes of historical memory, at the heart of the capital, faced a relentless fusillade of furious criticism for its “insufficiently heroic” exhibition depicting the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as which particular images should be included in the exhibit. Meanwhile, the Enola Gay, the plane from which the bombs were dropped, occasioned a unanimous Senate resolution in 1994 declaring that the bombs brought the war in the Pacific to a “merciful end.”
President Eisenhower shared Truman’s belief that ideas were as important to the Cold War as bombs. On Flag Day, June 14, 1954, Eisenhower signed a bill that made Lincoln’s phrase “under God” an official part of the pledge of allegiance.
The President declared: “We are affirming the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource, in peace or in war.” Perhaps more revealing, however, was his famous dictum: “Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.” The former World War II commander believed: “There are no atheists in foxholes…in a time of test and trial, we instinctively turn to God for new courage and peace of mind”.
Eisenhower’s confident young successor, President John F. Kennedy, also proclaimed his faith in the American civil religion. Kennedy turned to God to help him and the nation to prevent a military catastrophe of biblical proportion in the nuclear age. This prayer contrasted with his Inaugural Address in which he had proclaimed that “we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, to oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
In practice, fortunately, Kennedy followed his prayers rather than his heroic rhetoric. He was able to defuse dangerous crises in Berlin and Cuba without provoking nuclear war and was able to keep the escalation of conflicts in Laos and Vietnam contained.
Lyndon Johnson also began his presidency following the Kennedy assassination with a Manichean view of the world – freedom against communism – and an unbroken, unabashed confidence in the legitimacy of America’s missionistic ideal of freedom. In the spring of 1968, however, developments in Vietnam and the near-civil war conditions in his own country diminished his confidence and brought about a drastic change in his relationship with God, at least in his public pronouncements. Johnson and his successor, Richard Nixon, scrupulously avoided claiming God for the American side. Indeed, Johnson confessed at the National Prayer Breakfast in February 1968, ” I can and I do tell you that in these long nights your president prays . . . America never stands taller than when her people go to their knees.”
Nixon did not dare repeat President’s Lincoln’s famous confession: “My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.” Instead, in his annual address at the National Prayer Breakfast in February 1972, Nixon asked those gathered to pray not only for him and the nation but also that the United States would, “to the best of our ability, be on God’s side.”
Overall, the Vietnam War polarized the American nation and American faith communities like no other war since the Civil War. President Ronald Reagan thus saw his great mission as reconciling the American nation to itself and returning her to her trust in God and in her mission of freedom. In the words of one historian: “He ’sacralized’ the nation by employing a trick that has since become legendary. He separated the disastrous actions of the state from the nearly divine nature of the American promise.” (Haberski 2012: 122) Actually, Reagan was following in Thomas Jefferson’s footsteps here. Reagan deliberately used a triumphant interpretation of American civil religion as a counterweight to Jimmy Carter’s national theology of humiliation. His famous “evil empire” speech in March 1983 denounced communism and the Soviet Union as the “focus of evil in the modern world.”
Later, George W. Bush, with the help of a coterie of neoconservative revolutionaries, incorporated 9/11 into this Manichean worldview. Bush’s ideology of freedom and progress was not just a matter of import to the world, but a mission in the name of God. This compound mission turned Bush alternately into a warrior crusading for freedom in the name of God or a holy warrior crusading in the name of freedom. According to Bush, the September 11th attacks sparked a great awakening of historical consciousness. In tragedy, Bush proclaimed, God is nearest.
President Barack Obama likewise believed in a theology of American exceptionalism. For him, America represents “the last, best hope of earth.” He passionately rejected a position taken by Reverend Jeremiah Wright, the pastor of Obama’s former church in Chicago. Wright had thundered: “Not God bless America, God damn America. That’s in the Bible, for killing innocent people, God damn America for treating her citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme.”
Instead, Obama used his speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo to justify the just war. In this speech, he used the word “war” 44 times while using “peace” just 32 times. It was clear that for Obama, there is evil in the world that must be fought when necessary.
What we see in Obama is the continuation of a nearly 400-year-old tradition. It seems that America could relinquish this mission and its utopian ambition only when it would give up on itself.
Exactly this might happen.
With President Trump, this might come to an end. President Trump is obsessed with destroying the core values of the American people. He is the quintessential Social Darwinist who considers life to be a brutal jungle. Already as a child, his father advised him to be a “killer”. He considers the American founding principles of freedom and human rights to represent naivety and nonsense.
Though he was born into a Presbyterian church, he, of course, lied about his church attendance. However, a self-help book of a pastor, “The Power of Positive Thinking”, impressed him. Asked about the Holy Communion, he remembered drinking “my little wine” and having “my little cracker”.
So far, he has not legitimized any of his actions by invoking God. Instead, the majority of white evangelical Christians, especially members of the “Independent Network Charismatic” (INC Christianity), have found him. They proclaim that God has chosen Donald Trump and like to compare Trump to King Cyrus who was asked to rescue the nation of Israel from exile, saying “Thank you, Lord Jesus, for President Trump.”
I am almost certain: Once reelected in 2020, Trump will start to proclaim that – indeed – he was chosen by God.
I am wondering, however, how many Americans will believe in “POTUS” by then.
About the Author: Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. em., Detlef Junker, Dinstinguished senior Professor, Heidelberg University
The HCA’s founding director was born in Pinneberg near Hamburg. He studied history, political science, philosophy, and German philology in Innsbruck and Kiel, where he earned his Ph.D. in 1969. In 1974 Professor Junker was appointed associate professor at the University of Stuttgart. He taught modern history at Heidelberg University from 1975 to 1994 and held the Curt Engelhorn Chair for American History there from 1999 to 2004. From 1994 to 1999, Professor Junker served as the Director of the German Historical Institute (GHI) in Washington, D.C. After his official retirement in 2004, he dedicated himself to founding and building the HCA and was instrumental in its institutional and academic success. The foci of his research are U.S. foreign policy in the twentieth century, German history, international relations and the history of transatlantic relations, and the theory of history. In 2005, Professor Junker was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of the University of Maryland–University College Europe (UMUC) in Heidelberg, recognizing his commitment to fostering German-American dialogue and cross-cultural understanding. In 2007, he was appointed Distinguished Senior Professor of Heidelberg University. In September 2010, he received the Federal Cross of Merit for his exceptional support of American Studies as a discipline, his academic teaching, and his entrepreneurial abilities. In 2014, he was named 2014 Honorary Roosevelt Fellow of the Roosevelt Study Center.
Haberski, Raymond J. (2012). God and War: American Civil Religion since 1945. Rutgers University Press.
Thank god I am an American, Library of Congress, Music Division. [, Monographic. ,,:, 1917] Notated Music. https://www.loc.gov/item/2014564973/.
Atomic cloud over Hiroshima, taken from “Enola Gay” flying over Matsuyama, Shikoku, Aug 6, 1945. Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Atomic_cloud_over_Hiroshima_(from_Matsuyama).jpg
Vintage Pledge of Allegiance Card, The National Defense Committee of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, circa 1960. Joe Haupt via Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/51764518@N02/48127282128
Reagan speaking in front of the Brandenburg Gate, June 12, 1987. Reagan Presidential Library, White House Photographic Office. Wikimedia Commons. https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Datei:ReaganBerlinWall.jpg
Trump in Prayer. Ninian Reid via Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/ninian_reid/34105097982