07/02/2012 12:50 pm ET | Updated Sep 01, 2012

War and America's Civil Religion

We will soon celebrate the Fourth of July with flags, parades, picnics, fireworks and, perhaps, a little cynicism if we dwell on campaigns, candidates and Congress. During the festivities, we might observe that current American politics pales in comparison to the heroic efforts of those who founded the nation. We might also shudder when remembering those who have recently died for a government that many Americans find dysfunctional. We would do well to consider, though, how this latter sentiment is part of a difficult legacy.

America is a country made by war. The war for independence created the myth of freedom fighters -- those willing to die today for the freedom of those yet born. The Civil War extended that myth through violence so overwhelming in scope that Abraham Lincoln implored his fellow countrymen to rededicate themselves to the ideals of the nation so that the thousands killed in the war had not "died in vain." Every war since then has echoed this legacy -- those who kill and die for America do so to affirm ideals apparently revealed most clearly in times of war.

Why does war seem to have such power? We believe that war transcends politics, revealing the soul of the nation, and forging a faith between a people and their country. The American experience with war acts like a civil religion -- a way for Americans to affirm and assess national ideals for which generations have been called to give their last full measure of devotion. It is a glorious, dangerous, heroic, terrifying cross to bear. In a word, it is ironic.

No other president understood the irony of this American civil religion better than Lincoln for he grappled with the way his countrymen, including presidents, understood their nation in religious terms, imagining that God both judged and redeemed their deadly efforts. Yet, unlike most of his countrymen, Lincoln had little confidence that he knew what God's judgment would be. And so, the hope at the heart of his Gettysburg address was tempered by the doubt embedded in his Second Inaugural Address. Lincoln punctuated such doubt at the end of his longest passage when he wondered if Americans had considered the implications of "this terrible war" on their relationship with God -- "shall we discern therein," he asked, "any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?"

Lincoln wanted Americans to consider whether the horror of war had done anything to their religious understanding of the nation. Had the Civil War undermined the belief that God had any active interest in the United States? That question has been Lincoln's bequest to us: What does war do to the religious understanding of the America? Since 1945, Lincoln's bequest has grown more imperative, as the United States has endured in a state of almost constant war -- cold was well hot.

From Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama, American presidents have consistently wrestled with the ironies of war. Harry Truman surely did: a few days after dropping the atomic bomb, Truman said to his radio audience, "It is an awful responsibility that has come to us. We thank God that it has come to us instead of our enemies; and we pray that He may guide us to use it in His ways and for His purposes." As disconcerting as that might sound (giving thanks to God for the bomb), Truman also resisted calls to use atomic weapons again: "If anyone still thinks that just this once, bad means can bring good ends, then let me remind you of this ... A third world war might dig the grave not only of our Communist opponents but also of our own society, our world as well as theirs."

Truman's successor played with similar discord. In a brief radio address for the American Legion's "Back to God" campaign, Dwight Eisenhower told Americans, "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." In other words, the Cold War had made the entire country into a large foxhole and Americans should find their way "back to God." Yet Ike also implored Americans in his famous farewell address to resist "the recurring temptation to feel that some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties." It was better, he believed, "to be strong in our faith that all nations, under God, will reach the goal of peace with justice."

The point is not that presidents contradict themselves -- we know they do -- but that they carry forward and are often beholden to the ironic relationship America has to war. The best example of this might be the contrast between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Carter's election in 1976 was seen by many to herald a moment of redemption following Vietnam. At his first National Prayer Breakfast, Carter bluntly told his audience that, "in effect, many of us worship our nation." It was time to admit, he said, we "are not superior ... and ought constantly to search our national and human individual consciousness and strive to be better." Carter's presidency was an exercise in national contrition; faced with the legacies of Vietnam and even the Cold War, Carter wanted to divest American civil religion of its attachment to war. And while he avoided military conflict, he couldn't resist declaring war on many other things: the economy, energy and American self-indulgence. His competitor for the presidency in 1980 rejected acts of contrition but, to the surprise of many, went much further than Carter to disconnect war from American ideals.

In his first inaugural address, Ronald Reagan eulogized Martin Treptow, an American soldier who died fighting the First World War, by quoting from Treptow's diary: "I will sacrifice, I will endure, I will fight cheerfully and do my utmost, as if the issue of the whole struggle depended on me alone." While the morale of the story was obvious, Reagan played against it: "The crisis we are facing today does not require of us the kind of sacrifice that Martin Treptow and so many others were called upon to make," he declared. "It does require, however, our best effort and our willingness to believe in ourselves and to believe in our capacity to perform great deeds, to believe that together with God's help we can and will resolve the problems which now confront us." Unlike Carter, Reagan waved away moral implications of Vietnam, and by his second term declared an end to the cold war. Even so, Reagan authorized a terrible war in Central America and in his farewell address the power of war remained present as he worried about a tendency among Americans to "forget about what we did ... [and] who we are." In the absence of a unifying war, Reagan wondered whether Americans could still generate faith in their nation.

For the first time since 1992, war will not be a major part of an election cycle. Yet war will undoubtedly continue as a presence in American life. The most respected institution in the nation is the military. We honor soldiers -- fallen and living -- as national heroes for their willingness to sacrifice for America's civil religion. Perhaps it's time to consider their service as something other than national martyrdom, for they fight, kill and die for us and our government, not some abstract notion of the nation. War does not merely affirm the best of America but also the worst. It remains our collective cross to bear.