Prayer in America
Subject: Harry Stout
Interviewer: Alison Rostankowski
The segments included in this interview* excerpt were recorded in Fall 2006, as part of Prayer in America, a look at the history of civil liberties in America and the controversy surrounding the USA PATRIOT ACT. The documentary is a production of The Duncan Entertainment Group, Iowa Public Television is the presenter and flagship affiliate for the PBS system. Harry Stout is the author of Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War. He is Professor of History, Religious Studies, and American Studies, at Yale Divinity School.
(* This transcript has been edited due to length.)
I'd like to start with Robert Bellah and his basic notion that most Americans share common religious characteristics defined as a civil religion. So what is your opinion and how do you define civil religion?
I have been aware of Bellah's arguments since his article when Daedalus first came out together with another religious historian named Sydney Mead. They were both kinda moving in similar directions. I believed, that I certainly could sense the existence of a civil religion of a sort of nation worship around me at the time that article came out, and it was almost universally understood in very negative terms because this was during the Vietnam era. This was saying, this civil religion is just blatant nation worship, a cover-up for American imperialism and bad wars all fought in the name of patriotism. And then the whole issue kind of dropped, and it kind of dropped in my thinking as well through the '80s and '90s.
It's made a tremendous resurgence since 2001 as many people, including me, really for the first time in our lives, post-World War II children, felt the power of patriotism in a very visceral way. I like to tell audiences that I got over it by the time we moved from Afghanistan to Iraq, but it was certainly palpable in those days immediately after 9/11 to see that we were attacked because we were a nation and then the loyalty to that nation became very powerful. But it also resonated for me in a more personal and direct way because of research I was doing on a book I was writing on moral history of the American Civil War. And I spent about 12 years working on this history, long before the events of 9/11 or any of the events since then.
I was puzzling over, how do you write a moral history of the Civil War. And alongside of that question was well, did anything new come out of the Civil War that really hasn't been talked about before? And I came to the realization after a long time of research and writing and thinking about this that Bellah was indeed right. There is an American Civil religion, but there was one question that he never answered, and that question was well, if it's a religion, how is incarnated? Most religions require a blood sacrifice, whether you're talking about other worldly religions, transcendent religions, or more imminent, nature religions. Well, what about an American civil religion? When was that incarnated and how was it incarnated? This intense loyalty to the nation's state, that could even override your loyalties to your traditional monotheistic phase.
And I realized that the birthing place of that civil religion was the Civil War and the enormous baptism and blood that was a familiar term that was used constantly in the Civil War that it was this baptism and blood, a million casualties North and South that really incarnated a sense of the American nation state, as a center of religious-like loyalty, loyalty not unlike the loyalty that monotheistic face, ask of their adherence.
In previous scholarship people have traced civil religion to far earlier times than the Civil War and you're making a slightly different argument. Why do you date it to the Civil War then when other people have gone back even to the Revolutionary War period?
The question of how do you date the emergence of a full-blown American civil religion is a very important question and I came to it in this way. My first book was actually a history of New England Puritanism, where I looked at, every generation of Puritans from the first landing in 1620 or 1630 with John Winthrop, through the revolution. And I saw in that settlement and in the ideas expressed in Puritan New England, a strong sense of what I would call, national messianism. The sense that we are in a unique covenant with God, modeled on God's covenant with ancient Israel, and we are destined to be the redeemer nation of the world.
That kind of language, what I would call a redemptive language identified with a place in time, did not originate in the Civil War. I could find it already with the Puritans, as have many other scholars. I mean, this is kind of the touchstone for how we trace America's very curious identity as a redeemer nation. This is something that's not common to every nation. It's not unique to Puritan New England, but it wasn't true of Canadians to the north of us in the 18th Century and the 17th Century, it wasn't true of Mexican or French populations in the south of the United States.
It's in this kind of narrow area that this group of people come up with the outrageous idea that they were a new Israel planted on this planet at this point in time to save the world, so that this isn't just one more colonial experiment. This is something that is truly cosmic and scope and Puritans had no doubt that the consequences of their settlement and their covenant, with God was either gonna be a New England led millennium of peace and happiness or a universal dooms day. Those were the stakes. And that language, that rhetoric, became clear, from the first days of settlement in the 17th Century, but that's different than an American civil religion tied to a democratic nation state.
Puritan New England literally reenacted ancient Israel. They literally thought that they were the new Israel and created what we would today call a theocracy. It wasn't a democracy at all. The form of government in colonial New England was much closer to contemporary Iran than to western democracies accustomed to toleration, freedom of religious expression, and all of the other things that we value.
Your freedom in colonial New England existed only so far as you agreed with the Puritan concept of a covenanted community. Other than that you were free to leave. And if you didn't want to leave voluntarily, you could be executed, you could be in prison.
Flash forward to 1776. The theocracy is gone. There can be no laws respecting the establishment of religion. That whole theocratic idea had to go by the boards. So in the narrow, Calvinistic covenant terminology of the Puritans that came to an end with the creation of the republic, but the rhetoric lived on. And the rhetoric lived on now attached to the republican experiment, the experiment in liberty. That was going to earn God's blessing, and that blessing in turn was going to continue the responsibility to be a redeemer nation to the world, except now what's being explored is not a Calvinistic idea of a church covenant, but the ideas of liberty of individualism, of toleration and democracy, which are either going to pervade and triumph in the world or evil will triumph and all will be lost.
But even that fell short of an American civil religion because in the early decades of the American Republic. Most Americans' loyalties were not to some abstract entity called the the nation state; they were to their states or to their regions. If you were to ask somebody who they were, they would say I'm a Pennsylvanian, they would say I'm a New Yorker, ah, they would say I'm a Virginian. Or if pressed beyond that, they might say I'm a New Englander or I'm a southerner. But the notion that their primary identity was as an American that didn't really exist.
The federal government was very weak, federal symbols of that government were seldom seen, few and far between. About the only time ordinary citizens had anything to do with the federal government is when they used the post office and when they voted. Beyond that everything was local. Everything was regional.
With the Civil War, with the question of recession, with a million casualties that were expended to settle that question of succession, American's loyalties took on a much grander, national scale. They began to see the American nation state as the redeemer nation that really superimposed itself on all locals, on all states, on all regions.
There's a famous quip that I used in my book. Before the Civil War, Americans would routinely say that the United States are a republic. After the Civil War they would say the United States is a republic. And so it's only with that cataclysmic struggle and the attempt to find meaning in it. How do you justify and understand a million casualties? Well, something mystical had to have been taking place. Abraham Lincoln recognized this probably more clearly than anyone else. And what that something was happening was in part, the investing of the American state, nation state, with the aura of the sacred that could demand religion-like loyalties and sacrifices and adoration.
What emerges after the Civil War is a religion within a diversity of traditional religions that has this whole of religious symbols, rituals and myths. It has its sacred places. It has the mall in Washington DC, the Alamo, Concord where I just visited a few weeks ago where Lexington and Concord was fixed. Probably most impressive of all is the Lincoln Memorial. In that Lincoln Memorial you'll all remember that there are the two texts printed inside, the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address with Malice Towards None. These became part of the sacred texts of America's civil religion.
There's four of them really. The Declaration of Independence, The Constitution, The Gettysburg Address, and the Second Inaugural, and they function like scriptures for conveying meaning for the American Republic. It has its holy days. Not Sundays, not Saturdays, but the Fourth of July, Memorial Day, Martin Luther King day, events that, are sacralized, set aside for the observance of the nation.
In the last comment you just mentioned the difference here that Canadians don't act this way, Mexicans don't act this way, British don't act this way. What is it? What is unique about American civil religion? How is it different to maybe religious nationalism that might be practiced in other countries or is it?
Well, certainly no, I would never make claims that American civil religion is unique. You know God is on every side and everywhere, God smiles on various people. You certainly have in some of the the Muslim nation states a very strong sense that this is a state that is both a political entity and a sacred entity and it's almost impossible to separate the two out completely. You had it in England certainly during the Puritan Revolution, with Oliver Cromwell and the rise of the Puritans. So it's not a unique entity, but it's perhaps, uniquely powerful in our world today. And in that sense, it stands out. Whether we deserve it or not, we are number one, which presents great responsibilities and great hazards when you start, applying the rhetoric of chosen as an agent of God and redemptive agent to what is the largest geopolitical military force in the world. It's very easy to misstep with that. Why was it America? I go back to the Puritans. Words matter. Rhetoric matters. The language that fuses a peoples' identity, can live on even after some of the immediate beliefs pass. And Puritan New England exerted an incredibly powerful hold on America's culture. And New England as a region even after independence when the theocracy was gone exerted a disproportionate influence on the nation's identity so that this language would live on. New England, as you know, led the way with education from Kindergarten through colleges like Yale that were all planted in the 17th Century. After the Revolution it was the dominant textbook provider for the nation. All of the textbooks, all of the histories that were written of America where shaped within this context so that, the Puritan influence in American culture was disproportionate to its actual numbers, which were probably barely one-third the population of the country. And so the language of like covenant people, had special relationship with God, God's chosen instruments, this kind of language had resonated long after the Puritans declined as a major religious force and attached itself to the American nation state with tremendous power, I would argue for good and for evil. It's not unadulterated evil the way many people in the '60s when Bellah wrote thought, and it's not unleviated good the way I think some of our statesmen, in the 21st Century, like to think of America.
What manifestations have you seen of this moving forward in history and what are the implications for civil religion today?
Yeah. Well, it has enormous implications. I mean, we can go to almost every president, whom invokes the Puritans in one way or another whether it's gonna be we're gonna be a city upon a hill. Ronald Reagan repeatedly used that metaphor. It's taken from the book of Matthew. Jesus was using it in reference to his church. The Puritans began using it in reference to their nation and Americans did as well. Images of light, of redemption from exile of coming out of the promise land. That this is very much a part of the staple, I think, of American political oratory. Rhetoric that was originally spiritual and religious, prayerful, being taken up for political purposes to define meanings for the United States today.
And so President Bush in a lot of his rhetoric reflects this notion that we will be kind of the engine that will, reconfigure the Middle East as a democracy. That reconfiguration will spread perhaps to other Asian nations, perhaps to Africa and so that the American way becomes the redemptive highway in the wilderness, that we are obligated to march down because of this special identity that's been given to us from on high.
You just mentioned you got a prayerful response here. What is the role, if any, of prayer within this American civil religion?
Prayer is enormously important, again, going all the way back to the Puritans, all the way to the present, and certainly in the Civil War, in the period that I researched for this recent book. But it's not prayer in the sense that most people think of it. Most people think of prayer either in terms of personal spirituality, in terms of a connectedness and a sense of connection to the transcendent, to the device, as a site of two-way communications where they're open to messages from the divine, and at the same time are encouraged to speak, to praise, to endure, to render petitions and thanksgiving. Or sometimes prayer is thought of in an ecclesiastical context when the people of faith come together. There are prayers for the spiritual community, there's prayers built into liturgies. Liturgies are often a little more than prayers, in many religious traditions and denominations.
What I'm talking about is something very different. I'm talking about a type of public prayer, that exists primarily to serve the interest of the nation state. These began in the 17th Century with what the Puritans called days of fasting and thanks giving. We got our November Thanksgiving Day today as kind of an inheritance, a secular inheritance from what was a very religious activity in the 17th Century. When bad things happened, droughts, attacks by Native American Indians, fires, earthquakes political authorities, civil authorities would call for special days of prayer and fasting. These special days of prayer and fasting were always weekdays, never on a Saturday and Sunday, and they were always called by civil authority. They were civil events, not ecclesiastical or personal events.
And during these days all labor had to cease, people had to go to church to find out in their language what was God's controversy with them that they had to endure these deprivations and these struggles. We're the covenant people. We're supposed to be blessed by God. God singles us out among all peoples of the earth, so why are we in a drought, why are our crops destroyed, why are we facing starvation or a war on the frontier?
Well, the ministers would explain that on days of fasting and they would go back to ancient Israel and they said to the people the same things that were said by the prophets in the Old Testament. Flash back with me to Jeremiah and the Hebrew Bible. Israel has been taken into captivity. They're sitting by the banks in Babylon in captivity and saying why has this happened? And Jeremiah comes along and you might think Jeremiah would say to the people this really stinks. You deserve better than this. Let's ask God to lighten up a little. But they get just the reverse. Jeremiah has only words of reprobation, of condemnation. You lost the faith of your fathers, you turned your back on your covenant God. You deserve this and God is using these occasions, these misfortunes to bring you back to him, to bring you to reform, to change your ways, and then he will deliver you.
So scholars of Puritanism and American religion refer to this kind of rhetoric as a Jeremiad, name for Jeremiah. On the one hand it's very negative. You're a bunch of vipers and monsters. That was a phrase that came up repeatedly in the 17th Century. You've been given this glorious covenant and you've trashed it and God's this close to deserting you and the covenant, but it's always this close. It's never he's actually deserted you. So on the one hand it's negative, but on the other hand it's a powerful confirmation that you are indeed the covenant people of God. And so God is using this adversity to refine you in the fires of adversity to persuade you to come back to God and repentance and reprobation and it's very positive. It confirms your identity.
It was a shock to me when I came to the Civil War to see this identical rhetoric employed, but this time identically by the North and the South. Two different nations both claiming to be God's chosen people, both proclaiming days of fasting. Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the first fast day in 1861. Jefferson Davis actually set aside twice the number of the North for fast days and both sides are repeating the same rhetoric of the Jeremiad. On the one hand condemning the North, say, for their secularism, for their materialism because they play games on Sunday and for the South it's because of intemperance, it's because of breakdown in family discipline. But the affect in both nations was to confirm their identity as the real people of God.
So prayer in this sense was enormously important. It was something of an eye opener to me to see that virtually clergy North or South dared question this logic. They fell into complete support for the agenda of their nation states and complete support for their commanders, whether it's Jefferson Davis or Abraham Lincoln, and that helped to account to me for the war's ferocity because if you have two nations both claiming the same rhetoric, both absolutely certain that these defeats aren't signs of the end, they're just God's purifying us to adversity, well, then there's no limit to how much blood can be shed until there's no more bodies to slaughter on the alters of their nation, because ultimately it's God orchestrating these events, not human kind.
And so public prayer, in the form of fast sermons, Thanksgiving sermons, were held in the armies of the North and South, as well as the churches of North and South, it didn't matter, and each had an enormous influence on cementing this identity of the American civil religion that I talked about earlier. The clergy themselves were the chief boosters for the sacredness of their respective sides.
So the justification from the Northern perspective and the Southern perspective, the reason they could condemn the other side might be different, but that moral rationale is essential. As the war progresses, as these bodies pile up as you're saying, does anything shift here, the justification for war, does it change over time? Does the moral argument change? Or was this consistent?
The moral argument changes and I can get to that in a second. The spiritual argument remains the same and that, to me, explains how the war went on and on and on because, yeah, it looks like we're losing the south can say, but we know that God is our covenant God, and so we just have to accept this a little longer, really repent, really reform our manners and life, and there will be a divine intervention and a salvation.
The moral argument for the war, especially in the South, does indeed change dramatically. It begins as a war for Union. The cause is the preservation of the union, and likewise in the south the cause is the right of succession. In the course of the war though it becomes apparent and in particular I think to Abraham Lincoln that something else is also very much a part of this war and that's freedom. And the Emancipation Proclamation is the first down payment on this new moral meaning that's being kind of imposed on the struggle to make it legitimate, to make it right, to make the losses acceptable. Union might not be enough after the first 400,000 casualties, so something else had to be invoked and that something else is freedom. And that invests in moral terms a rhetoric to political oratory that has also never disappeared. I sometimes think that the rhetoric of freedom is our badge of lost innocence. It covers up every war and every act of imperial conquest really under the guise of freedom.
And I find it interesting that in so many struggles, it comes in after the fact. Lincoln was not saying this in 1861. He's saying it in 1863, when the original language for going to war just doesn't seem enough. It doesn't seem right. And to bring it to the present, whether this gets included in the interview or not, it's the same pattern that we see over and over. I can trace it in World War II, I can trace it in Vietnam, I can trace it in Iraq. What did we go in there for? Weapons of mass destruction. They're not found, so there has to be a deeper moral reason, and that deeper moral reason is freedom.
Well, I was going to ask you about the patterns of history. I mean, those are important for us to trace. Now, you just mentioned World War I, World War II, Vietnam. Can you kind of retrace where those patterns are, where the similarities are so that the audience can make those connections.
Well, you have the power of patriotism. I mean, that cannot be denied, I think especially in times of war, especially when wars break out. There's an enormous power to this. And in the American context the rationale that feeds this patriotism, in the midst of war is very much the language of freedom. This has many consequences, but the one that I find most disturbing is that it often encourages people to ignore questions of just conduct in wars, like protection of civilians. If you can yell freedom loudly enough, and liberation loudly enough, then hard questions of unjust conduct, of immoral conduct, whether that's fire bombing the city of Dresden, dropping nuclear weapons in Hiroshima, equally dastardly acts by the Germans against the English, that these questions don't really have to be raised. These things are rendered immaterial because of the nobility of freedom and liberation that effectively knows no limits. And in the United States' case and only the United States' case those limits, included resorting to atomic weapons.
Did the individual soldier internalize what they were hearing?
Yes, I mean, the whole question of how common soldiers understood the war is extraordinarily important. And on the basis of much of what I read, I would say that most soldiers had a surprisingly sophisticated understanding of what they thought they were fighting for. They didn't think that they were simply fighting to save their necks. They didn't think that they were simply fighting for their comrades, although this is a hugely important variable, especially in the heat of battle when the temptation to cut and run is almost overwhelming; anyone who's ever been in combat will tell you that. Comradeship is important, but ideas counted too, words counted too and that gets back to when I talk about the importance of rhetoric.
When I read these letters, both sides say well, God may cause me to give up my life on the alter of my nation, a recurrent phrase in the Civil War, this I willingly do because the cause is just, the cause is noble, because I know that I will be blessed. How did they get these ideas? Well, I have to come back again to the importance of the ministers on both sides. I mean, they exerted a disproportionate influence on American culture that I don't think is equal today. I mean, we can talk about the religious right, we can talk about religion and politics and how powerful they are, but in terms of the power of a minister to shape the world, the meanings, the values of a young man were almost unrivaled in the 19th Century. Today those words compete with university professors, with newspapers, with talk shows, with a variety of sources of information.
In the Civil War era, really as an inheritance almost from the earlier Puritan area the words of the clergy were absolutely pivotal. They had no concept I think of the power that those words registered in soldiers' minds. Did clergy say this is awful? I cannot countenance. Twenty-six thousand casualties in one day of battle at Antietam. This is just immoral. Soldiers would have had real questions about whether they were willing to throw themselves into the path of the cannon, in one more fetal charge. But if ministers North and South are to a man saying this is God's will for you, God will protect, and if God wills that you die on the battlefield today, you will be with him in paradise tomorrow.
So it's motivation that is part comradeship that's true of every war, of soldiers in combat everywhere, but in part also there is this ideology, this body of ideas that is very powerful. I actually heard echoes of our situation today in a lot of the rhetoric that soldiers would use and ministers. Sometime by 1862 or '63 soldiers killed in combat were routinely celebrated as martyrs, which, as you know is a religious terminology, one that we're all too familiar with, all too painfully familiar with today, in the so-called war on terror. But it was very much a part of their terminology in the Civil War, North and South, Union and Confederate.
And so when you have people telling you that God not only wills this war and God not only has your eventual triumph in his redemptive plan not only for America, but from America to the whole world and where you hear this all around you, when you here it in the Army camps from the chaplains, there's widespread religious revivals in the army, it's going to make a difference and you're going to really believe that you're fighting for something that's ultimately transcendent. And this is the language that we hear tragically now coming out of the Middle East, particularly in the Islamists who really believe that they're not just fighting with comrades for a cause but that they are martyrs to a higher good that makes their own lives almost insignificant.
You begin to get a sense of how 26,000 people could be shot and killed in one day in the Civil War, how at Cold Harbor, Virginia 7,500 Northerners, Federal soldiers under General Grant's command, were decimated in little over an hour, 7,500. You can get comradeship, love of conquest, love of money, love of fame. They're not gonna get you to do that, but this deep abiding sense that we are God's instruments and that this nation that we are dying and we are laying ourselves on our national alters to uphold is ultimately going to have a significance well beyond our borders, that will redeem the world. That's got to be a very strong incentive for the soldiers in the trenches to get them through just these horrible, horrible sacrifices.
You suggest in your book that this results in the cultural captivity of the churches. And then you come out of the war and there's obviously a winner and a loser. So a lot of times in the South you start to see this translated as the lost cause theology. Can you explain what that is?
Well, after the Civil War this phenomenon of an American civil religion that I'm talking about, it grows out of the Civil War, but it takes a while to mature because the South can't get over the defeat and they can't get over the barbarism of the women and children and of the Northern army, so they are in a sense bound and determined to sacralize the memory of the soldiers who fought for the lost cause and not let that memory be cheapened or tarnished. So you see many attempts, in the South, even more than the North to preserve the nobility of these soldiers. You can even find continuations for a while of we're still God's people. The lesson we've learned in this war is that God doesn't always choose the winners to be his people. Sometimes God chooses the losers. So we may have lost on the battlefield, but we're going to win the war of ideas.
And many people say, in fact, that has happened, that the South ultimately did win the Civil War, and they look at contemporary politics and the role of the South in generating a language of Christian America and a moral majority and say yeah, there's something to that. And it was powerful, but ultimately it could not override a larger loyalty to an American nation state that Southerners could buy into as much as Northerners. And that begins in the Spanish-American War in 1898 when many Southern soldiers volunteer to fight with the United States and then it really achieves its final fruition with the election of Woodrow Wilson, a Southerner, the son of a Presbyterian minister, as President of the United States.
And from that point on, ironically the South becomes the leading patriots in America. They enlist in disproportionate numbers in American armed services. They preserve American values to a degree that you don't find here in the northeast or in other parts of the country.
You just mentioned Wilson and then Wilson of course comes out and claims that the reason Americans have got to get involved in World War I is to make the world safe for democracy. And then in World War II FDR starts to use similar language. So what kind of similarities do you see there in the rhetoric of a Wilson or an FDR in terms of the civil religion that you might see in Lincoln during the Civil War?
They make my case very effectively because they're very much the legates of this rhetoric, of redemption, of freedom, of making the world, a better place. One of the interesting things about Lincoln was that as important as the union was for him, he was never strictly an American first nationalist. There's several other unifications that are being cemented at this time in history. I think of Bismarck, forging a German nation state really through blood and guts as he referred, but his interest in that went no farther than the interest of the German nation state. Lincoln from the very start had the sense that the Union had to be preserved not for its own sake, but that so America could realize it's almost millennial destiny to lead the world into democracy. If America is the sole point of our loyalties, Lincoln said, we're idolaters. The reason God is delivering the republic, and preserving the Union is that America can realize its destiny not just to be a great nation state, but to somehow or other be a divine instrument to make the world a transformed place, to take a wilderness of corruption, of conflict, of dissension and transform it into the garden of the Lord.
And so when Wilson is picking up on this and Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, President Bush today, they're all picking up on this language, it's very much a sense of America in service to the world.
Talking of Lincoln, you mentioned earlier the kind of sacred documents, The Declaration of Independence being one of them. What was Lincoln's view of this and how did his perspective inform his action as president?
It was extraordinarily important to him and in particular one little phrase of Thomas Jefferson's, that all men are created equal. And that becomes his touchstone for redefining the moral meaning of the Civil War through emancipation and ultimately through abolition, that Lincoln was an admirer of The Constitution, but he thought that The Constitution was a document that could and should be changed to fit the unchanging truth that all men are created equal so that if down the road it becomes apparent that slavery is incompatible with all men are created equal, then that constitution needs to be changed, not The Declaration of Independence. We don't rewrite The Declaration and say well almost all people were created equal.
If even farther down the road it becomes apparent that women are not treated equally, that women can't vote and have the franchise, well, then that constitution is going to have to be changed again so that the unjustness of second-class citizenship on women like Blacks needs to be corrected in the form of constitutional amendments. And so the The Declaration of Independence for Lincoln was what the revolution was all about. The Constitution was one attempt to try and institutionalize that abstract proposition in ways that imperfect, in ways they could never anticipate changes in society, in ways that, therefore, require that constitution to be changed even as The Declaration remains the bedrock of his identity, of his sense of American identity.
How in your opinion, do Lincoln's theological views and opinions relate to his perspective as he entered into the Civil War?
I think that they relate very little as he enters the war. I don't think he was a religious man by traditional standards and, you know, we know all the facts; he didn't join churches, you can go through all of his correspondence and find maybe one reference to the word Jesus, or Christ, so he's not a conventional Evangelical in any sense of the term, claiming a person relationship with Jesus the way our current president would do. His interests in religion were more ethically grounded and politically grounded, in this republic that he thought had a real sacred calling in and of itself, the American Republic. And so this is very clear to Lincoln in the beginning.
As the war progresses and as he has to confront his responsibilities for setting in motion something that is now claiming tens of thousands of lives weekly or monthly, numbers that we can't imagine, even from World War II we can't imagine the extent of the destruction, it begins dawning on him that God has something more personally in store both for him and for the nation. It's not a conversion experience; he doesn't bring Jesus into his heart and say thank you, Jesus. Once I was lost, but now I am saved, the light of the world is Jesus. You don't see any of that rhetoric, but the notion that the American Republic is not just a political entity, it's not just a democratic form of government, but that it has a mystical meaning in and of itself increasingly impresses itself on his thinking as the war progresses, progresses such that by the end of the war and the end of his life the republic is very much as much a mystical unit and entity as it is a political or a military or a bureaucratic.
And, he also develops an increasing sense of fatalism that God is orchestrating the events just like the conventional Evangelicals were thinking, and that comes out in the Second Inaugural where he has this memorable phraseology, you know, "If God wills that this war continue until there's a soldier in the grave for every lash that was laid on the back of a slave, then so be it. The judgements of the Lord are good and righteous altogether," A quote from the Hebrew Bible that he inserts into that, Second Inaugural. Well, that's the same sort of Christian fatalism that I saw in the churches and the clergy, almost from the start of the World War. God wills that the war continue. The war's going to continue until God wills that it ends.
Of the fact that it would end Lincoln had no doubt because he came to sense that God had redemptive motives for America, redemptive plans for the American Republic; so the war had to end, but as to when it ended, how much loss would be incurred, well that's God's call, not Lincoln's, not Davis'. So in that sense he also through that kind of language I think helped reinforce the resignation that people would meet casualties with understanding, rather than outrage and say oh, God is still punishing us. When will this burden pass? When God is ready and not a minute before. There was another side to Lincoln that also came out in the Second Inaugural, that I find more important. I think that this language of if God wills it to go on and on and on is not especially useful. In that sense it replicated what the clergy was saying, which I think really accounted for the ways in which the struggle could go on when it went beyond all proportionality, to considerations of human life.
But there's something else that I think rose out of a religious sensibility and appears in the Second Inaugural and that's the phrase with malice towards none. Hardly anyone I read in the Civil War had that kind of rhetoric and that kind of vocabulary. It was always we are God's righteous people. They are the instruments of the anti-Christ, they are satanic, they are evil incarnate and if they're wiped off the face of the earth, if they're exterminated, they deserve it, and we deserve every victory and every blessing because we're right. But they never would take the camera and turn it around on themselves and say well, how are we being wrong? Is it true that there's only one right side and only one wrong side?
And Lincoln - very few people in his party wanted this. He wanted a peaceful reconciliation with the South. Many in his own party bitterly rejected that. And when he died and the radical Republicans took control of the congress, they enacted far harsher measures on the defeated confederacy than anything that Lincoln had in mind, in that Second Inaugural and as he faced the prospect of peace in his last days. And so to come out with this phrase, with malice towards none, let's bind one another's wounds, let's bring the nation healed back as one, that was a Christ-like kind of language, a messianic language, that this person who never invokes the name Jesus was about the only one proclaiming during the heat of the Civil War.
In terms of Lincoln's death. How does the country react? Given the rhetoric, given the war, what is the reaction, the religious reaction, the prayerful reaction around Lincoln's death?
The South is scared to death. There are still negotiations going on, there are still Confederate armies in the field who want to try and negotiate a surrender. The generals meet with Union generals and they say we had nothing to do with this. The presumption was that this was a last ditch plan by the Davis government and by the generals, to throw the Union into such chaos that they seek a negotiated settlement. So they're terrified. They think that this is going to bring on a reign of destruction out of sheer retribution.
For the North part there were no shortage of people who intended precisely that. They wanted to believe that the Confederacy was behind the assassination. They wanted to pour it on now even worse now that they're basically driven to their knees. Let's destroy them root and branch. There is a lot of that. And then there's also the beginning of what I would call the apotheosis of Lincoln.
Remember when I talked about American civil religion having all the qualities of a religion: sacred shrine, sacred text, sacred places, sacred days? It also has its Messiah and America's Messiah comes to be Abraham Lincoln. While he's alive he's America's prophet. He speaks, in the language of a prophet to the people. And with his assassination on Good Friday, by the way, which all of them picked up on, the same day that, that Christ died Lincoln dies. They picked up that identification. And so in funeral sermon after - funeral sermon you find on the one hand bitter hatred and invective in the North to where it's Confederacy and on the other hand the beginning of this process by which Lincoln becomes almost Christ like in his significance, and so he has remained I think ever since.
I saw an article I think not too long ago that every president, republic and/or democratic has a bust of Lincoln, in his office somewhere. He transcends parties, he transcends politics, and he comes to stand, really as the messianic figure for American civil religion, the personification.
We talked to Jonathan Sarna and he was talking about prayers for government and how they started during the Civil War, remained strong during the Revolutionary War, and then disappeared with Vietnam before being resuscitated after 9/11. So do you see the same kind of linkage there in terms of these prayers for government?
I think that political and religious conservatives have always had prayers for government including Vietnam. I think what happened during the Vietnam was that the liberals gained the ear of the media, of the country, and they were not prayer orientated, but prayers were still going on during Vietnam as they were in World War II. They just weren't being registered in the national media and in the mass media, but I think that's always been part of that identity. And so I would differ just a little from Jonathan's perspective. Not all from the fabulous history of Judaism that he just finished publishing, but on that particular front I think that prayers have always been very conspicuous in the conservative sector of American society, but that was a sector that had lost a lot of its voice in the '60s and '70s and maybe even in the '80s. And then they reclaim it or rediscover it, actually Jimmy Carter provided the terminology, born again, born again politics, which leads to the Reagan, election and the restoration of prayer as a very conspicuous component in the national agenda coming out of the Republican White House.
In your research how did military leaders, who, of course, also have to rationalize and have to motivate a large amount of soldiers, how have they used religion or prayer as part of the group dynamic in preparation for battle?
I think it varies. In the case of the Civil War, Confederate generals were believers, all, almost. There were a few exceptions, John Bellhood was an exception, but Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee were devout believers who promoted revivals in the armies, who very much promoted the language of the Jeremiad, God is ultimately, our shield and our guide who will keep us through the storm, keep your faith in God.
Interestingly enough, in the North you certainly do have, Christian generals. O. O. Howard, for whom Howard University was named, is certainly a major confirmation of this, but you have other generals who evidenced little interest, if any, for religion, and they're the three most powerful Union generals. Philip Sheraton, Ulysses Grant, and William Sherman. Sherman's God is clearly America and he has no time for conventional religion. He was nominally raised Roman Catholic, but it never really meant much to him. I think he joined a church in last year of his life. Grant was not Pious, Sheraton, was not Pious, and these were the generals, and in particular, Sherman could impose this hard war or this total war in the South meaning civilians, as well as soldiers, in ways that, weren't confused by contrary Christian claims, is it really right that we destroy women and children's homes in front of them so that we break their will, that these kinds of scruples didn't seem to have risen, they don't show up in the memoirs of Grant or Sherman. Sherman simply says war is hell and until these people come back to their true God, which is America, the destruction will continue and I will continue to be the executor of it.
So there's not a consistent pattern with generals, and I think the same is true today. I don't know what the religious affiliations of generals are today. I'm sure you would find that dimension. I also argue that America civil religion has a seminary and that seminary is the United States Military Academy at West Point. And from the start, West Point was very cool towards, Evangelical religion. If it was anything, it was a quasi-Episcopal establishment, in which piety, heartfelt religion were disdained, that this is not the cult of a warrior, this is not the language of a soldier.
And so you find within the culture of West Point, which is supplying the commanders on both sides of virtually every battle in the Civil War, a level of indifference to religion that didn't exist at other colleges and university in the 19th Century like Yale, Harvard, or Princeton where there were revivals of religion that would take place on the campuses, but this really bypassed West Point and it wasn't what they were about. They were in the business of being really the redeemer priests of the civil religion, of the nation state.
We talked about Lincoln and his interpretation of slavery and you mentioned when talking about civil religion, national holidays, and one of them being Martin Luther King Day. Can you make that linkage between how is this notion of a kind of Lincoln's idea, this argument about what America is or should be kind of reflected in movements like the Civil Rights movement?
Oh, very much so. I mean, Martin Luther King, basically in his address, basically he uses the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural as his touchstone really for what we are about now in the 20th Century. Civil Rights leaders including Martin Luther King very much buy into the rhetoric of the Jeremiad. The difference is they find America not living up to its rhetoric. They say I too believe with Lincoln that all men are created equal, that all men and women will one day live in harmony and equality, but that's not what I see when I look out there. So he continues to hold out hope that America will one day realize its dream and that he will realize his dream not only for White and Black kids in America, but for White and Black kids throughout the world that they will be brought together in harmony.
And so he's picking up very effectively on the cadences of the Puritan Jeremiad and saying some people around you might think we've arrived, that we are the great people on earth already, and I'm here to tell you that we haven't. We have this sin of prejudice; we have this sin of segregation. Until we repent of this sin, we will never be able to realize the ideals that people like Lincoln, articulated so effectively in our past.
Martin Luther King is an incredibly well known example in American history. Is there another reflection or manifestation of civil religion in the kind of public realm that you've picked up on that maybe wouldn't automatically spring to mind in the kind of public conscience?
I think a lot of rock and roll music is a prophetic Jeremiad against the materialistic American culture that's lost its way. Maybe I'm dating myself. Maybe I'm remembering the music of the '70s and '80s, as well as today, but it seems to me, I think of U2, of Bono today, and I think of Bob Dylan, of a whole spectrum of performers who are doing something besides head banging that they're basically saying, you know, we have this set of ideals, but we have a terrible nation. The problem's not the set of ideals. The problem is that we have been unable to realize them in our own life because we have become completely captive to a materialistic agenda, to a materialistic, imperialistic, whatever istic you want to say and that we have to get past these. We have to counter this material culture. We have to create a counterculture.
And so a lot of the impetus behind the youth movement of the '60s and '70s, a lot of that I think is grounded in the same sort of Jeremiad type identification of America, disillusionment with America for not living up to those ideals, but by golly, those ideals are still worth sharing.
Well, just continue in that thought on Woodstock as prayerful religious experience.
I think, when you asked for examples of the Jeremiad outside of politics, presidents, generals, and so on, and I hit on music, and talked about themes of we've got to get back into the garden, we've lost our way, why do we never get an answer to the questions we're asking, why is there such corruption all around us, that's probably the ritualistic apex of that movement for the '60s generation was Woodstock.
I was actually invited to go to Woodstock. I was a student at a graduate program called Kent State University, during the time of the shootings and thereafter, and there was a group going to Woodstock and I couldn't go. Plus the weather forecasts were lousy. Well, a lot of other people didn't go, but you wouldn't know that today 'cause they all said they were at Woodstock, during those times. But clearly, a half a million people showed up. Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young wrote a song about them.
There was real cultural residence to this, and I think that it took on the flavor of a counter cultural revival, couched in the language and the customs and to the regular culture it would have been perceived as immoralities as very much their standard and that their music was their clearest articulation of those ideals and those protests and the community that they wanted to see established. Can't we trade in our swords for plowshares, can't we come out together in love? Does this have to continue, the way it is? And I think that's very religious.
I'd be interested to get your opinion on, the thesis from the book by James P Moore, which is somewhat different. Jim Moore's thesis says, "prayer affords an opportunity to recognize how Americans, despite their diversity, are unified in their spirituality with one another and with a higher being. Americans today must understand prayer as a unique, unifying thought." What do you think?
I immediately get very nervous with a singular prayer. I mean, if it was prayer as plural, God as plural, I would feel a little more comfortable. The word prayer singular implies a kind of uniformity and a cohesiveness to American culture that I don't find as an American historian. I don't find it embedded, it's too feel good I guess. It has its accurate dimensions.
There was a lot of praying going on after 9/11, a lot of praying by people who didn't pray very often, who were willing to be there. I mean, what was the anthem of 9/11? It wasn't the Star Spangled Banner, which is much too secular and trivial. It was God Bless America. But what were the sacred words quoted a year after 9/11? The Gettysburg Address read by the governor of New York. So that it has that dimension to it, but that also those quotations obscure the ways in which prayer can be dissenting, that it can be creating conflict instead of consensus, that it can be generating hatreds, as well as loves, and that dimension has to be reckoned with as well.
We talked about slavery. When the slave was praying and when the Confederate master was praying, well, they're both praying, but that masks a tremendous divide between that slave who's manacled in a cabin and that master who owns him like property thanking God for his property. And so I think that the writer has his finger on the notion of the importance of prayer, religiosity, providentialism in American culture, but that it misses, the equally significant ways in which prayer can tear us under and break apart.
Let's talk about 911 and the Yankee Stadium gathering. And I guess some people looked to this and said, oh, isn't this great, Hindus and Muslims and Jews and Catholics and Christians and Buddhists and everyone together and they were holding hands and praying to God, and other people say well, who are they actually praying to? So when you look at that event or with these people coming together, how do you interpret that day, and what's going on?
They're praying to America's God. They're praying to America and it's a time that I was caught up in the sheer emotional power of that event. The focus is not the kind of spiritualized prayer, prayer that takes place in churches. It's much more celebration and a devotion to America. I see all of those people in one way or another on their knees metaphorically speaking, adoring this nation state that these evil forces have tried to destroy and that that's the activity that I see going on.
In some ways more now I guess it as weekday pasts that I talked about where the focus is the nation and the state of the nation and the blessedness of the nation and not my individual religiosity and my prayer to the Hindu God or to the Hebrew God or to the Christian God.
What is prayer?
There's different kinds of prayer. There's political prayer. It doesn't necessarily have to be heretical, it doesn't necessarily have to be idolatry, as some might claim, and that's the prayer of the civil religion of the nation state. That's what I think we were seeing in the coming together, the spontaneous comings together not as believers in a common God, not as believers in the process of prayer to redeem the nation, but common believers in America, a nation that's under assault.
I'd like to get to a few questions about where some of this divide is rooted, which is found in documents. What part do America's founding documents play in the establishment of the civil religion you've been describing to us today?
Well, I think they're the texts. I mean, what part does the Book of Deuteronomy play in the Hebrew religion? What part does the Gospel of Matthew play in the Christian religion? Well, they're foundational parts, and so too with those documents that you just mentioned, those founding documents, are really in affect scripture for the American Republic, scriptures to live by, scriptures to measure yourself by. And just as say, in Christianity and its sacred text, we have raging debates between those who say, every word of the Bible is literally true and can't be changed, and others say no, let's look at the spirit, well, we have those same debates raging over The Constitution. There are strict constructionists, we have to understand every word, you're not in the business of improving on the founders. And then there's another side that say well, let's look at intent. What did the fathers intend? And if this is what they intended, well, then some things have to change from the 18th Century.
So I think that they're extremely important. There's precedence of prayers. Duche's prayer before the Continental Congress. We conveniently forget that he became a loyalist and returned to England during the revolution but he's appointed the first chaplain and there's been chaplains to congress ever since. There's been prayers as congress goes into session. God's name is invoked every time a judge walks out into a courtroom, so that patterns from the very start are extremely important in explaining where we are today and those documents are extremely important.
Well, given some of the examples then that you've just described, in God we trust, prayers before major government events, why then does this contention come about over school prayer?
That's something that's not new, and it comes the minute it becomes crystal clear that America is no longer a quasi-Protestant nation. Now, we can say that America is a democracy, that it's pluralistic, but the fact of the matter is that throughout the colonial period well into the 19th Century it was a quasi-Protestant establishment so that the prayers that would be issued in public schools were Protestant prayers. The Bible readings in public schools would be from the Protestant Bible, the King James Bible, not from the Catholic Bible.
With increased immigration, with increased, pluralism, different religious traditions, the arrival of Roman Catholics, then Jews, they start saying these aren't prayer, in some generic prayer light sort of way. These are Protestant prayers and we don't want our children being indoctrinated by them. We don't want to listen to this. So the only solution is, well, there's two solutions I guess. One is we can begin each day with 30 different prayers to 30 different Gods to 30 different traditions or we can get reasonable and sane and say no prayers in the school. You're more than free to have a devotional life, but there's too much diversity.
But when these debates continue today about reintroducing religion or prayer into the schools, isn't this again clearly a manifestation Protestantization? Fast forward and not much has changed?
I think in some curious ways. I mean, it all goes comes back to the Civil War in case you haven't figured that out. One of the things that happened in the Civil War that has bearing on your question about today was that in drafting their constitution the Confederate states of America included in their preamble an explicit reference to God by which they felt entitled to claim themselves as a Christian republic, and they pointed out that in contrast to the Northern constitution, which doesn't so much as mention the name of God, they say that constitution was written by fanaticals, by atheists, by deists, by people who never knew the Lord Jesus Christ. Ours is a real Christian nation and that's why God is going to bless the Confederacy.
For their part in the North northern Evangelicals were also scandalized and they said the Confederates are right. We have to have God in the constitution. It's not that God is on the side of the Confederacy. That's not the way in which they're right, but they're right in condemning the Northern constitution for omitting God. So there was tremendous fervor during the Civil War on the part of the Republican party, not the Democrats, but the Republican party, to introduce a constitutional amendment that would name first God and then Jesus Christ and the infallible scriptures as the touchstone of the nation.
That mentality that America is destined to be a Christian nation, a Christian America never died in the Civil War and, in particular, in the Republican party it never died. And so you can follow that to Republicans on the right today saying we need to restore America to its Christian origins, conveniently forgetting that the Founding Fathers were, for the most part, atheists, free thinkers, deists, and Christ deniers, forgetting that and saying let's establish America as a Christian nation. It's not just a republic. It's a Christian republic, and if it's a Christian republic, then our public institutions have to represent Christianity, as well as democracy. So, therefore, in our public institutions, schools, congress, courts, God and preferably, if they had their way, Christ should be invoked.
Can you continue that thought a little bit in relation to one of the other areas that we're exploring in this show, which is faith-based initiatives? coming from the government.
Well, I think it's obvious as long as all you're doing is celebrating American democracy and the American way of life there's no threat to trying to improve inner city education, trying to restore some sense of community, humanity to prisons. The fear is I guess that it steps over that line and becomes coupled with the other mission of the church, which is proselytization so that a faith-based ministry is not solely about binding the wounds of the imprisoned, about restoring good education to inner city students, it's also about when we do this for them, they will be grateful and they will want their God to be our God. And so there's this proselytizing dimension that I'm sure upsets a lot of people in terms of the faith-based initiatives. And I think it's true, although I'm hardly an expert at this, I think you would find here too that the dominant party supporting this would be predictably the Republican party.
Is there anything that you would like to say that I haven't addressed?
Well, I would only say that the type of prayer and its relationship to America that I'm describing for here is not the universe of prayer and to the extent that I see the negative implications of this, as well as the positive, that I'm critical of it. That should not obscure the fact that there are these other dimensions of prayer that every day transform the lives of Americans in the present and in the past, and that's amply documented going back to the earliest days that prayer saves lives, that people reach out to prayer on a personal basis, on a spiritual basis, and lives that are torn by suffering, that are torn by illness and depravation and that they reach out.
And I think as horrendous as the life of a slave must have been to be owned, to be beaten, to be raped at will by your owner, that the miraculous thing is that in the middle of the night in the slave cabins and the greatest depravations that we can imagine a prayer breaks out, a prayer for deliverance, a prayer for praise, and so this dimension, this transcendent dimension of prayer that I have not focused on in my comments today also needs to be recognized in any understanding of American culture, of American religion, of American spirituality. And I was focused really on what I'm calling, from one of the better labels, political prayers.
This notion of a city upon a hill, if you could go back to that. You mentioned how maybe Lincoln or JFK or today President Bush has used this type of language and rhetoric.
It goes back very famously to what is arguably America's most famous sermon and it was preached aboard a ship called the Arabella, by the soon-to-be governor of the Massachusetts Bay Company, John Winthrop. And there's four or five ships going over to create what they hope will be this model society. And midway through the voyage, Winthrop addresses the passengers and basically he waits until it's too late for them to jump overboard and swim back. He says you have a lot of ideas about what this new world experiment's all about. For some it might be about fortune, that, after all, was the experience in Virginia, with the Jamestown colony, they were looking for gold and silver, it may be free land, it may be a new start, it may be, and the ability to branch out as an individual, and I'm here to tell you what this is really all about. And this is ultimately all about a covenant between us and God. The stakes in our migration have world ramifications. We shall be known as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all the world will be upon us so that if we succeed, the world will say let us be made like these people. And if we fail, God will judge us and we'll be the laughing stock of the world.
Now, I don't know if you can imagine the chutzpah of this guy talking to maybe 70, 80, 90 people on four rickety wooden ships crossing the ocean with the outrageous idea that this motley crew is going to be a city upon a hill that God is putting in place as a model for all of the world to emulate and once emulated to be led into a new Heaven and a new earth.