Our “Wars” and Why We Fight Them

Flag_Culture_Wars-600x398Ever wonder what’s up with the ubiquitous use of the word “war” to describe some political or cultural cause? A glance at the headlines reveals that we are a nation at war with ourselves. If aliens darting around the galaxy were to stop for a bathroom break on Earth and read our headlines, they would see that there is a war on women, a war on religion, a war on poverty, a war on drugs, a war on terror, a war on science, a war on reason, a war on Christmas, a war on kids, a war on fat, a war on whistleblowers, and on and on and on (these are all actual “wars” we are “fighting,” according to a 30 second Google search I did just now.)

It’s weird, at least to me, that we use the word “war” in this way. I’ve never been in actual combat, but I am aware enough to know that our nation has been sending men and women to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan to serve in combat in a real shooting war since September 11, 2001. Using the term “war” to talk about a cultural or political cause has always seemed to cynically minimize the sacrifices that our servicemen and women have made over the past thirteen years.

I was reading about Elizabeth Warren’s recent speech in which she vowed, “We will overturn Hobby Lobby and we will fight for it, we will fight for it.” What did she mean? Is she advocating for violence?

The use of the word “war” and “fight” in political/cultural context obviously does not mean anything entailing violence (usually, at least). But it does conjure up images of grappling with an enemy, of strategy and tactics, of advance and retreat, of victory or defeat. Cultural and political wars are fixated on the hope of a victorious future or the dread of an irreversible defeat. Wars mean sacrifice, toil, commitment. Above all, wars call for unity in the face of a threat.

War has a peculiar civil religious element that is useful in bringing unity to otherwise disparate groups. In a war like World War II, Americans put aside many, if not most, of their religious, cultural, social, racial, and cultural differences for the purpose of defeating the Japanese and the Germans. They made sacrifices. They bought bonds. They weathered bad news and they determined never to be satisfied with anything less than unconditional surrender. And in the end, that’s what they got from their enemies. They were totally defeated.

Raymond Haberski’s God and War: American Civil Religion Since 1945 addresses how Americans have seen war over the past three generations. War, Haberski argues, has been an essential idea to American unity and purpose since World War II. It brings people together in ways that other ideas simply cannot. In the absence of a real shooting war, Americans will often make up a war, in order to rally to a cause.

The Global War on Terror was unique in that, from the beginning, our leaders never demanded much of the non-military population in the way of sacrifice. President Bush, in a September 27, 2001 speech at O’Hare International Airport, encouraged Americans to continue doing what they were doing: “Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed,” he said. This, in stark contrast to FDR’s call for the American people to sacrifice for the war effort in a speech from April 28, 1942, in which he said, “All of us are used to spending money for things that we want, things, however, which are not absolutely essential. We will all have to forgo that kind of spending.”

Since the War on Terror is a war that is largely fought by the military, but not the citizenry, people in general have room in their minds for other “wars” that serve to rally them to causes that concern them as disparate groups. Race, religion, gender, environment, class, and political party serve as suitable “front lines” in the “wars” we fight. One problem, according to James Davison Hunter in his Before the Shooting Begins, is that “culture wars always precede shooting wars.”

I’m not in the business of predicting the future, but I can read the present. We live in a time when we are actually getting accustomed to mass shootings at malls, schools, theaters, and even places of worship. I found myself in the position recently to explain to my kids why the person in the car in front of us gave us the middle finger and just tried to run us off the road. I know I, along with people representing every political and social position, worry about the suspicious “war-fighting” culture we are handing down to our children.

And yet, Americans self-identify along the lines of race, gender, political persuasion, etc.. I guess there’s nothing new in that. What seems unique in our present situation is that the group mentality often entails “war” with other groups that are considered “the enemy.”

Considering this from a historical perspective, Americans, it seems have always seen themselves in such terms while the issues that divide them have changed. This is especially ironic, since our national motto (until 1956) was E Pluribus Unum (“out of many, one”). Perhaps we need to go back to the Federalist Papers, and read what Madison, Hamilton, and Jay wrote about the challenge of maintaining unity among so many disparate groups, or factions, as they called them. Madison wrote in Federalist 51,

If a faction consists of less than a majority, relief is supplied by the republican principle, which enables the majority to defeat its sinister views by regular vote. It may clog the administration, it may convulse the society; but it will be unable to execute and mask its violence under the forms of the Constitution. When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government, on the other hand, enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens. To secure the public good and private rights against the danger of such a faction, and at the same time to preserve the spirit and the form of popular government, is then the great object to which our inquiries are directed. 

The republican concept of the “public good” was a salient concept in Madison’s thinking. Public good is to be differentiated from “group good.” Selfishness destroys republics. Pursuit of the public good, the common wealth, is the aim of the republic. One means of attaining the public good is a scrupulous attention to respecting the natural rights of all men, women, and children. Natural rights, as understood through the lens of the natural law tradition in Western thought, are based on the existence of God and the divine image he has bestowed on his human creatures, giving them all worth and dignity. Respecting the natural rights of all means, at minimum, that individuals and groups do not seek to limit or deny the rights of other individuals or groups. Madison also said in Federalist 51,

Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens;

Culture and political war-fighting is anathema to a republican pursuit of the public good. Wars pit groups against each other, casting the other as “the enemy” to be totally defeated and destroyed. It’s hard to see how our system of democratic-republicanism can survive in its current state of constant wars and rumors of wars.

Princeton Bound


I’m headed out to attend the Witherspoon Institute’s seminar on Religion and Liberty in the Founding Era in Princeton, NJ the week of July 27. It’s going to be an incredibly helpful seminar, and I’m very much looking forward to it. The seminar faculty will include Thomas Kidd from Baylor University, Daniel Dreisbach from American University, and Gerald McDermott from Roanoke College. For me, it’s really one of most unique educational and professional opportunities I’ve ever had.

To prepare for the seminar, the participants are reading The Sacred Rites of Conscience: Selected Readings on Religious Liberty and Church-State Relations in the American F0unding, edited by Dreisbach and Mark David Hall. Here are the readings we are going to be discussing on the morning of the first day:

  • Martin Luther, Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed
  • Schleitheim Confession of Faith
  • John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion
  • Act of Supremacy; Act of Uniformity; Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England
  • Richard Hooker, Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity
  • The First London Baptist Confession of Faith
  • Westminster Confession of Faith
  • Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan
  • William Penn, The Great Case of Liberty of Conscience
  • John Locke, “A Letter on Toleration,” The Second Treatise
  • “Cato” [John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon], Cato’s Letters, Letter 66, “Arbitrary Government proved incompatible with true Religion, whether Natural or Revealed”
  • Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws
  • William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England
  • Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations

We’ll be working our way through all that week until the afternoon of August 1 to our last reading, which is from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.

Here is the description for the seminar–

This five-day seminar will examine the relationship between religion and politics in the period of the American Revolution, founding, and early republic. Open to untenured faculty and post-doctoral scholars in history, political theory, law, and religion, the seminar will explore primary sources at the intersection of church and state—charters, constitutions, and legal texts, as well as sermons, pamphlets, essays, speeches, debates, and religious texts. Topics will range from the colonial era and the First Great Awakening, through the revolution, constitution-making, and founding debates over religious liberty, to the dawn of the Second Great Awakening, with a view of politics from a religious perspective, and a view of religion from a political perspective. From Edwards to Emmons, from Mather to Madison, from Whitefield to Washington, major figures of this pivotal era in American religious and political history will be considered in their own historical settings. The seminar faculty will be leading scholars of American history, law and politics, and theology.

I’ll have to take a week off from my writing, but it’ll be all right–I’ve budgeted my writing time this summer around my seminar prep time as well as the week away. When I leave on the 27th, I’ll have 7 of my 9 chapters completed. Closing in on finishing up, and very excited to have the exceptionalism book done.

Carol Burnett’s Hilarious “Obsession” with John Foster Dulles


In researching my chapter on America’s providential mission to the world, I ran across this hilarious little Cold War anecdote. It’s about how comedienne Carol Burnett became famous after singing “I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles” on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1957.

John Foster Dulles served as Secretary of State under Dwight Eisenhower from 1953-1959. He was the quintessential Cold Warrior. His worldview was animated by the idea that human history was marked by a cosmic struggle between good and evil forces. During his time, those forces were represented by the United States as the force of good and the Soviet Union as the force of evil. He believed that the future of the human race hinged on whether or not the United States was successful in meeting the threat posed by the “godless communism” of Soviet Russia.


Sec of State John Foster Dulles, 1888-1959

Dulles was famous for being dour, grim, and humorless. So when Carol Burnett sang a song about a crazed fan’s obsession with Dulles, it brought the house down. Her singing that song on the Ed Sullivan Show was her big break.

To add to the delicious humor of this story, Carol Burnett told Diane Rehm that shortly after her performance, she saw Dulles giving an interview on Meet the Press. This is what Burnett said happened at the end of the interview:

And so it was, you know, all the serious talk about what the Secretaries of State talk about. And then at the very last part of the show, the moderator said, well, all right, we’re going to leave now, but, Mr. Dulles, just tell us what is this about you and that young girl that sings that love song about you. And I looked — oh, I got real close to the television set. And he got a twinkle in his eye and he said, I make it a matter never to talk about loves in public.

Even the most staid Cold Warrior had a sense of humor!

“Fellow Citizens, We Cannot Escape History”


An attack on a Puritan settlement, King Philip’s War (1675-78). Seventeenth century New England Puritans interpreted such events as God’s chastisement for sin.

These were among the closing words of Lincoln’s December 1, 1862 Annual Message to Congress. In that message, Lincoln proposed a thirteenth amendment to the Constitution that would provide for a gradual and compensated abolition of slavery by January 1, 1900. Furthermore, Lincoln proposed that Congress would encourage colonization efforts to locate former slaves in Central America, the Caribbean, and Africa.

This address was one of many issues we covered and discussed last night at Phil Sinitiere’s religious history course at the College of Biblical Studies (see here). The students were interested, engaged, and curious about the development of American exceptionalism between the 1600s and the 1800s. They were particularly interested in how to apply providence to the interpretation of events–this question came up when I was going over the Puritan use of the jeremiad during the late 1600s, particularly around the time of King Philip’s War (1675-1678).

This question comes up a lot in my own classes at Southwestern Seminary, and it comes up even more when I speak in churches. It is a question having to do more with theology and philosophy of religion than it is a historical question. The very best explanations I have seen on the question of providential interpretation of history are in Mark Noll’s Civil War as a Theological Crisis, John Fea’s Why Study History, and Robert Tracy McKenzie’s The First Thanksgiving. The short answer is that, absent special revelation concerning God’s mind on any particular event, any word we could ever give on God’s providence in history is pure speculation. Because speculating on things residing in the mind of the Creator is so intellectually and morally problematic–and dangerous–it’s best not to give in to that temptation. McKenzie gives Christians a good word when he says that trying to find God’s purposes in particular events actually “reflects a low view of Scripture” (McKenzie, 177). When we resort to providentialism, we are neglecting Scripture as divinely inspired and trusting in our own ability to discern with certainty God’s purposes absent His revealed word. No biblical prophet or apostle dared anything approaching presumption of this sort. If they didn’t, we shouldn’t.

Phil started off the class with a fascinating lecture on the history of Islam and Hinduism in the United States–he played a recording of the Islamic call to prayer and included a transliteration so that we could follow along. He also played an 1893 recording of a speech given by Swami Vivekananda at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. You can listen to it here, and find a transcript of the speech here.

After the break, I started my lecture. I began by discussing the English origins of American patriotism, exceptionalism in particular. We began with a recording of the closing of the Proms in London (see here), which set the table for the rest of the evening’s lecture and discussion. We talked about the theological, political, exegetical, and historiographical roots of American exceptionalism before discussing the assigned primary readings from John L. O’Sullivan’s “Great Nation of Futurity” and Lincoln’s Annual Message.

It was a great evening, and a thrilling opportunity for me to get to join in on what Phil is doing at CBS. Thanks again, Phil. I look forward to this fall when you will come and teach on race and religion for my Issues in American Culture course at the Darrington prison!

Interactive Map of the Territorial Expansion of the US, 1783-1912

us_expansion_1848If you have any interest in the territorial growth of the United States, go over to Lincoln Mullen’s historical blog and check out his interactive map of American expansion. It is meticulous in its detail. You can activate a timeline with your mouse and roll over any particular territory for pertinent information. It is user friendly, and really engaging. I showed my 8 year old daughter the map, and she was mesmerized. We spent a half an hour playing with it the other evening.

Mullen has another interactive map of the expansion of slavery in the US from 1790-1860. Here is what he says about his methodology and purpose:

Using Census data available from the NHGIS, the visualization shows the population of slaves, of free African Americans, of all free people, and of the entire United States. It also shows those subjects as population densities and percentages of the population. For any given variable, the scales are held constant from year to year so that the user can see change over time. You can use the map for yourself, and I’ve also written briefly about what the map shows below. Historians have of course often made use of maps of slavery, in particular maps based on the Census, in support of their arguments. What I’ve tried to do in this interactive map is make it possible for users (including me) to explore the census data in support of making historical arguments.

Quote of the Day

Wilson460“This is the time of all others when democracy should prove its purity and its spiritual power to prevail. It is surely the manifest destiny of the United States to lead in the attempt to make this spirit prevail.”

-President Woodrow Wilson, Eighth Annual Message to Congress, December 7, 1920

According to intellectual historian Milan Babík, author of Statecraft and Salvation: Wilsonian Liberal Internationalism as Secularized Eschatology, (Baylor University Press, 2013) Wilson is the only president ever to use the term “manifest destiny” prescriptively in his official capacity.

Guest Lecturing at Houston’s College of Biblical Studies

Book cover

My profound thanks to Phil Sinitiere of Baldblogger fame for inviting me to join his American religious history class at the College of Biblical Studies in Houston this coming Monday evening. I am really looking forward to it, and am honored to receive the invitation.

Phil is an American historian who focuses on religion and culture, race and religion in America, and African American studies. He is the author of Holy Mavericks: Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace (with Shayne Lee), co-editor of Christians and the Color Line: Race and Religion After Divided By Faith with J. Russell Hawkins, and co-editor of Protest and Propaganda: W. E. B. DuBois, the Crisis, and American History with Amy Helene Kirschke. He is an award winning teacher of World History, American history, African history, African American religion, and many other courses. Phil is a true scholar and gentleman, and I am honored that he asked me to spend some time with his class.

We’ll be talking about American exceptionalism in the nineteenth century as it diverged into two civil religious expressions during the 1840s-1860s. One of these expressions is represented in the writings of John L. O’Sullivan, editor of the United States Magazine and Democratic Review and the person responsible for coining the term “manifest destiny.” O’Sullivan’s brand of exceptionalism was heavily nationalistic, overtly Anglo-Saxonist, strongly expansionist, and based on an Enlightenment style certainty in the ways of providence. Manifest destiny is the brand of exceptionalism I am classifying as “closed exceptionalism” in my forthcoming book.

The second expression of nineteenth century exceptionalism is represented by the speeches and writings of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s exceptionalism was based on an objective and universal conception of justice. He derived his exceptionalism from the Declaration of Independence, which he elevated to near-biblical status. His clear conception of right and wrong animated his views on patriotism, slavery, and disunion. And his humble agnosticism regarding God’s providence set him apart from almost everyone else of his day. While he regarded the United States as the “last, best hope of earth,” he believed that the nation was fallible, as was clearly seen in the nation’s failure to do right by African Americans and prevent the Union from breaking up. But he also believed the nation had an innate instinct to strive toward the right, and it was Lincoln’s mission to set the nation on that path. I am calling Lincoln’s expression “open exceptionalism.”

The students will be reading a couple of primary texts in preparation for the lecture. The first is O’Sullivan’s “Great Nation of Futurity,” in which he wrote that America represented a formal break with the past. America was God-ordained to be the nation at the tip of the spear of human progress. The second is Lincoln’s December 1, 1862 Annual Message to Congress, in which he made his famous statement, “Friends, we cannot escape history.” He advocated for a new way of thinking about the abolition of slavery, but his proposed solution represents a step on the way of his own moral and intellectual development on the subject.

Phil is helping me out immensely by inviting me to come and teach on nineteenth century American civil religion and exceptionalism. I also owe him big time for reading and offering suggestions on the drafts of my chapters. He loves a good philly cheese steak, and he definitely deserves a lifetime supply. Thanks a lot for your help and friendship, Phil!