America is assumed to be different. We are different because Christianity is thought still to thrive in America. Whereas Christianity is allegedly dying in Europe, it seems alive and well in America. That Christianity still seems a vital faith in America confirms for many the contention that there is an inherent link between Christianity and democracy. For it is assumed that not only is America a Christian nation, it is the paradigmatic exemplification of democracy.

In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor tries to explain what in particular accounts for this presumed difference between America and Europe. At least one of the reasons, Taylor suggests, that may account for the difference is America never had an ancient regime in which a hierarchical social order was given legitimacy by the church. Also at work may be the different role of elites in determining general attitudes toward belief and unbelief. For example, the skepticism of academic elites in British society had more effect in England because elites have more prestige in British society than elites in America.

Taylor suggests that the primary reason for the American difference is due to the development of a common civil religion that allowed Americans, as well as immigrants in America, to understand their faiths as contributing to a consensus summed up by the motto, “E pluribus Unum.” This is in marked contrast to Europe where religious identities have been the source of division either between dissenters and the national church or between church and lay forces. But in America religious difference is subordinated to “one nation under God.” Religious people in America may find they are in deep disagreement about abortion or gay marriage, but those disagreements are subordinated to their common loyalty to America.[1] But that subordination also includes their faith in God; that is, whatever kind of Christian (or non-Christian) they may or may not be, their faith should be in harmony with what it means to be an American.

Taylor observes that this difference also accounts for the respective attitudes Europeans and Americans have toward national identities. Europeans generally are quite reticent about national identity. That they are so Taylor attributes to the experience and memory of the First and Second World Wars that devastated Europe. He observes that war, even wars that seem “righteous,” now make most Europeans uneasy. But that is not the case with Americans. Americans’ lack of unease with war may be, Taylor suggests, because they wrongly think there are fewer skeletons in the American closet when compared to the European closet. Yet Taylor thinks the reason for the American support of war is simpler. “It is easier,” Taylor observes, “to be unreservedly confident in your own righteousness when you are the hegemonic power.”[2]

I have no doubt Taylor is right to think America’s unrivaled power in the world gives Americans a sense of confidence about our role as the “world’s policeman,” but I think Taylor does not make articulate — to use one of Taylor’s favorite words — the relationship between American civil religion, our assumption that we are a “religious nation,” and why war for most Americans is unproblematic.[3] War is a moral necessity for America because it provides the experience of the “Unum” that makes the “pluribus” possible. War is America’s central liturgical act necessary to renew our sense that we are a nation unlike other nations.[4] World War I was the decisive moment because it was that war that finally healed the wounds caused by the civil war.

This is well documented by Richard Gamble in his book, The War for Righteousness: Progressive Christianity, the Great War, and the Rise of the Messianic Nation. Gamble provides ample evidence to show how liberal Protestants justified the first World War as redemptive for the nation and church. For example, Lyman Abbott, a well known progressive Protestant who had sought to reconcile Christianity with evolution, argued that America as a Christian nation must be willing to be self-sacrificial in service to other nations. Therefore America rightly opposed “pagan” Germany because Germany is a society in which “the poor serve the rich, the weak serve the strong, the ignorant serve the wise.” By contrast America is a society of “organized Christianity” in which the “rich serve the poor, the strong serve the weak, the wise serve the ignorant.”[5]

Harry Emerson Fosdick, the exemplification of Protestant liberalism, went so far as to suggest in an article in the Atlantic Monthly in 1919, that the returning troops would present a special challenge to the nation and the churches. He argued that the soldiers would have learned the meaning of self-sacrifice through the experience of the war. Moreover they would have experienced the potential of cooperative action through the regenerative power of devotion to a higher cause. Accordingly the returning soldiers would challenge reactionary views of society and the church because they would expect to remake the world to which they returned to correspond to the lessons they learned from the war.[6] War, in short, was seen as the laboratory for more egalitarian social policies advocates of the Protestant social gospel so desperately tried to achieve.

Christianity and democracy in America were and continue to be, through the experience of war, inextricably linked. Thus Arthur McGiffert, the president of Union Theological Seminary, argued that religion was necessary “to promote and sustain democracy.” Religion, according to McGiffert, had to dispose of its “egoistic and other-worldly character” by becoming socially responsible. “The religion of democracy” he warned, “must cease to minister to selfishness by promising personal salvation, and must cease to impede human progress by turning the attention of religious men from the conditions here to rewards elsewhere.”[7] Such was the lesson to be learned from war.

I call attention to how Americans understood the theological and moral significance of World War I because I think we fail to appreciate what Taylor identifies as the American civil religion if we do not take the American understanding of war into account. For example, Taylor observes that the traditional American synthesis of “civil religion” associated with a non-denominational Christianity with a strong connection to civilized order is still, unlike its British counterpart, in its “hot” phase. That it is so, however, has everything to do with the American experience of war as constitutive of the substance of our civil religion.

The significance of war for American civil religion can be missed even by political theorists as insightful as C.B. Macpherson. Macpherson identified two versions of liberal democracy, which he argued shape American democracy but are in conflict with one another. The first form of liberal democracy is one in which a capitalist market society is assumed to be compatible with democratic processes. This form of democracy, no matter how modified it may be by the rise of the welfare state, remains dominant — particularly in America. It has, of course, been given renewed theoretical legitimacy with the development in American political science of various accounts of balance of power models between groups.

The other version of liberal democracy Macpherson associates with John Stuart Mill’s attempt to moralize liberalism by arguing that a liberal society must be one in which all the members of the social order are equally free to realize their capabilities. From Macpherson’s perspective, liberal democracy, particularly the democracy of the United States, has tried to combine both forms of liberalism.[8] Thus at times “liberal” means the stronger can dominate the weak as long as they follow market rules, while at other times it means the attempt, usually through state agency, to achieve freedom for all to develop their capacity. As a result American politics cannot help but appear incoherent as different and contradictory policy alternatives are put forward in the name of “freedom.”[9]

For example, the right of abortion is defended in the name of an individual’s right to have control over her body, but it is still assumed that laws against suicide make sense in the name of preventing harm. Moreover, that portions of the American society think it legitimate to appeal to their religious convictions to address such issues is seen by some to be a threat to the consensus that makes America work. Thus Taylor’s observation that even though the Protestant character of the original American civil religion has been broadened to include “all faiths” or “no faiths” there is still a strong “religious” character to American public life. That such is the case is confirmed by the very existence of secularist and liberal believers who seek a more secular America.[10]

I have no doubt that Macpherson is right that both forms of liberalism shape American life, but the tension between them can go unnoticed exactly because America is so wealthy and has the common moral experience of war. Of course it turns out that wealth makes war necessary. Yet Americans assume that we never go to war to sustain our wealth, because war must be understood as a moral enterprise commensurate with our being a democracy. From such a perspective, September 11 was absolutely necessary for the moral health of the republic. That America must fight an unending war against terrorism means Americans have a common enemy that unites us.

If I am close to being right about the place of war for sustaining the American difference I find that as a Christian I wish America as a nation was more “secular” and the Christianity of America was less American. Put differently I wish America was more like Europe. For I fear the Christianity of America, a Christianity that from a European perspective seems vital, is not capable of being a political challenge to what is done in the name of the American difference. In short, the great difficulty is how to keep America, in the proper sense, secular.

In order to elaborate this observation, I think it helpful to call attention to Mark Lilla’s important new book The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics and the Modern West. Lilla begins his book by giving voice to a sentiment raised after September 11, 2001 and occasioned by the Bush presidency. They simply cannot believe what they thought had been left behind has returned. Lilla observes he had assumed that battles over revelation and reason, dogmatic purity and toleration, divine duty and common decency had been relegated to the scrap heap of history. So “we,” that is, people like Lilla, “find it incomprehensible that theological ideas still inflame the minds of men, stirring up messianic passions that leave societies in ruin. We had assumed that this was no longer possible, that human beings had learned to separate religious questions from political ones, that fanaticism was dead. We were wrong.”[11]

Lilla seeks, therefore, to do nothing less than to defend what he describes as the great separation, that is, “to develop habits of thinking and talking about politics exclusively in human terms without appeals to divine revelation or cosmological speculation.”[12] Lilla understands this separation to be an extraordinary achievement because political theology is a “primordial form of thought” which for millennia provided the well of ideas and symbols for organizing society and shaping moral lives. In the West Christianity was the source of political theology even though the political theology Christianity represented could not help but create political societies that were and are inherently unstable. The instability is the result of the Christian presumption that they are at once in the world but not of it. For example, Christians have always had trouble making sense of an empire they accidentally acquired.[13] Lilla argues it was Hobbes who found the way, after a millennium of Christian political theology, to discuss religion and the common good without making reference to the nexus between God, man, and the world. He was able to do so because Hobbes, anticipating Feuerbach, had the wisdom to turn questions about God into questions about human behavior; to reduce that behavior to psychological states, and then to portray those states as artifacts of desire, ignorance, and the material

For Hobbes the gods are born out of fear of death, poverty, and calamity; but Hobbes knew better than to try to deny such fear. Rather he focused fear on one figure alone, the sovereign. Such a sovereign,
Hobbes called him an “earthly God,” could ensure that his subjects should fear no other sovereigns but him. No longer would there be a tension between church and crown because now the sovereign would make clear that salvation depended on obedience to himself.

Lilla thinks Hobbes’ great achievement, this great separation which is crucial for the art of living in a liberal democratic order, is secured by three developments. The first is the intellectual separation made possible by the scientific revolution in which a now-mute natural world is separated from its creator. As a result investigations of nature can be separated from thoughts about God. Secondly, the crucial distinction between the public and the private is developed, relegating religious convictions and practices to the latter. To be sure, Lilla acknowledges, Hobbes made the sovereign responsible for public worship, but not for actually mounting an inquisition to determine if citizens actually believed “Jesus is the Christ.” Thirdly, perhaps less obvious but equally consequential, is Hobbes’ argument for separating academic inquiry from ecclesiastical control. Thus one of the achievements of Hobbes’ project can be seen in theology’s becoming, as it has in modernity, but another academic discipline relegated to divinity schools.[15]

Though Hobbes is often thought to legitimate a violent understanding of politics, that is, human existence as a war of all against all, Lilla argues that Hobbes is actually trying to limit the violence that is unleashed by political theology. For when war is undertaken in the name of God there can be no limit to killing because so much is allegedly at stake. That is why human beings who believe in God commit acts in war no animal would commit. Animals kill only to eat and reproduce, but humans fight to get into heaven.[16] Hobbes, on Lilla’s reading, is the first great realist in international affairs. After Hobbes, war at least has the potential to be humanely limited because it can be fought for selfish

Lilla suggests Locke and Hume provided softer accounts of Hobbes’s Leviathan but in doing so they remained fundamentally Hobbesian. Like Hobbes they wanted to protect modern man from the superstition and violence associated with political theology by developing liberal habits of mind. In particular, Locke thought it possible and necessary to liberalize Christianity itself, which Lilla suggests bore fruit in the work of Rousseau, Kant, and Protestant liberals such as Schleiermacher and Troeltsch. Yet Lilla judges the attempt of Protestant liberals to ground religion in human experience to be a failure because:

It failed to inspire conviction about the Christian faith among nominal Christians, or attachment to Jewish destiny among nominal Jews. Once liberal theologians succeeded, as they did, in portraying biblical faith as the highest expression of moral consciousness and the precondition of modern life, they were unable to explain why modern men and women should still consider themselves to be Christians and Jews rather than simply modern men and women.[17]

Such is the dilemma of Christians in America. Just to the extent Christians try to be “political” by playing by the rules set down by “the great separation” they cannot help but become unintelligible not only to their neighbors but, more importantly, to themselves. I think this helps account for the strident character of the rhetoric of the religious right in America. Though claiming to represent a conservative form of Christianity, the religious right is politically a form of Protestant liberalism. The religious right makes a fetish of this or that belief, e.g. the substitutionary account of the atonement; they think is the hallmark of Christianity, but by doing so they play the game determined by the great separation, that is, Christianity has become primarily a matter of “belief.”

Yet secular people in America fear the religious right. They do so because they think that the rise of the religious right and Islam threaten the “great separation.” Thus Lilla ends his book reminding those who are like him committed to Hobbes’ great achievement that they are the exception. They cannot expect other civilizations to follow the path of the West. But according to Lilla the West has made the choice to protect individuals from the harms they can inflict on one another in the name of religion. It has done so by securing fundamental liberties and by leaving the spiritual destinies of each person in their own hands. In short, Americans have chosen to keep our “politics unilluminated by the light of revelation. If our experiment is to work, we must rely on our own lucidity.”[18]

But Lilla’s account of the great separation does not explain how a country allegedly shaped by Hobbes and Locke is, particularly in reference to war, a nation which understands itself in religious terms.[19] Americans are said to be the beacon of hope for all people, requiring sacrifices for the good of the world. In short, Lilla does not explain why it is very hard to keep the secular secular in America. Once the church has been relegated to the “private” it turns out the nation takes on the language of the church. It is not Christians and Muslims that challenge the great separation, but rather it is “America.”

Yet Lilla’s sense that Hobbes’ achievement may be threatened is widely shared by others in America. For example in his book, Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up On the Meaning of Life, Anthony Kronman sounds themes very similar to Lilla. The
university, as Lilla suggested, is the key agent for sustaining the great separation. According to Kronmen it was, of course, true that the early universities in America would have been shaped by Protestant piety. But after the civil war, Kronmen argues, universities in America were organized to be institutions to sustain a secular and humanistic account of life. Students would be initiated into a secular humanistic way of life through reading the great texts of the Western tradition. Through such reading students would learn “that it is possible to explore the meaning of life in a deliberate and organized way even after its religious foundations have been called into doubt.”[20]

This perspective supplied the grounds for those in the humanities to believe they had the competence and the authority to lead students in a disciplined study of the human condition in order that they might pursue their own personal search for meaning. Such pedagogy assumed that no fixed conception of the end of human life or a single right way to live can be sustained. For according to Kronman there simply is no “vantage point we can ever occupy from which our lives can be seen as a whole.”[21] Secular humanism does not require that God be rejected or even thought to be irrelevant to life as long as such judgments are left to the individual.

Kronman acknowledges that death is the most determinative challenge that confronts the secular humanist. “We all die, and know we will, and must adjust ourselves to the shadow which the foreknowledge of death casts over the whole of our lives.”[22] Yet death also forces us to recognize that whatever meaning life may have depends on us. Accordingly, life for the secular humanist is self-contradictory. For the secular humanist seeks to abolish the limits that give their longings meaning, that is, they seek to be in control, yet in the attempt to seize control they come to recognize that without the limits they seek to overcome the ends they seek could not exist.[23]

Sounding very much like Lilla’s account of Hobbes, Kronman argues that religion, drawing on our fears, seeks to have us revalue the limits of life by accepting those limits as an occasion for gratitude rather than rebellion. The smug cosmopolitan and secular observers of the rise of this religious revival think this development to be shallow and mindless. Kronman thinks such an attitude fails to recognize that the problem is not the death of God but the death of man. It is the task of the university to be the church for the rebirth of a humanism that is more honest and honorable than any religion can offer.[24]

Kronman’s understanding of secular humanism assumes what Lilla calls the great separation, thus confirming Lilla’s contention that the university is the crucial institution to sustain liberal social orders. Yet Kronman fears that the secular university has lost its way by becoming a research university beset by the demands of the politically correct. I certainly think the humanities have lost their centrality in the modern university, but I think that loss is due much more to the humanism Kronman advocates. For once the “great separation” is accepted then a Hobbesian world cannot be avoided, that is, a death determined world committed to the defeat of death. In such a world the university cannot help but become the home of technologies designed to increase our power over fate.

Such a world, and the universities that serve it, must go to war in an effort to defeat those forces in the world that threaten our security. Americans are determined to live in a world of safety even if we have to go to war to make the world safe. That project is often justified, and this is Kronman’s list, in the name of ideals of individual freedom and toleration; of democratic government; of respect for the rights of minorities and for human rights generally; a reliance on markets as a mechanism for the organization of economic life; the acceptance of the truths of modern science and the ubiquitous employment of its technological products as aspirational goals all should want. According to Kronman “to be openly opposed to any of these things is to be a reactionary, a zealot, and obscurantist who refuses to recognize the moral and intellectual authority of this ensemble of modern ideas and institutions.”[25] I have little doubt that Kronman believes this, but that he does so means he simply cannot see what the rest of the world sees, namely, that this is an ideology for a culture of death.

Kronman and Lilla are to be commended for their willingness to advocate secular humanism as a moral, educational, and political project. They simply seem to assume that the secular humanist will be more peace loving. But I find it hard to find any evidence that would support such a conclusion.

By calling attention to Lilla and Kronman I hope to have helped us see that if we as Christians are to begin to reclaim the political theology required by the truthfulness of Christian convictions we will need to begin by doing theology unapologetically. In particular that means Christians must reclaim theology as a knowledge central for the work of any university worthy of the name “university.” That will require, at least in America, a recovery of the church as a polity capable of challenging the presumptions that the state is the agency of peace. In short, if the analysis I have tried to develop concerning the American difference is close to being right, it should make clear that a commitment to Christian nonviolence is the presumption necessary for the church to reassert its political significance.

In Veritatis Splendor John Paul II claimed that there is an inseparable connection between truth and freedom which if broken results in totalitarianism. America is a society built on the assumption that freedom must precede truth. Therefore America is presumed to be the alternative to totalitarianism. However, if my account of the American difference is correct I think that presumption needs to be reexamined particularly in light of the way war sustains American political life.


[1] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007), pp.b522-527.

[2] Taylor, p. 528.

[3] For Taylor’s emphasis on the significance of being articulate for locating our lives morally see, Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989), pp. 92-107.

[4] I develop this account of war in my essay, “Sacrificing the Sacrifices of War,” Criswell Theological Review, 4, 2 (Spring, 2007), pp. 77-96. The significance of the civil war is crucial in order to understand the liturgical significance of war in American life.

See. For example, my essay, “Why War is a Moral Necessity for America or How Realistic is Realism?” Seminary Ridge Review, 9, 2 (Spring, 2007), pp. 25-37.

[5] Richard Gamble, The War for Righteousness: Progressive Christianity, the Great War, and the Rise of the Messianic Nation (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2003), p. 155.

[6] Gamble, p. 211.

[7] Gamble, p. 214.

[8] C.B. Macpherson, The Life and Times of Liberal Democracy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), p. 1.

[9] Thus Alasdair MacIntyre’s now classic description in After Virtue (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007) of the inability in liberal societies to know what might count as an argument.

[10] Taylor, p. 528.

[11] Mark Lilla, The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the
Modern West
(New York: Knopf, 2007), p. 3.

[12] Lilla, p. 5. Charles Taylor, in a very interesting review of Lilla’s book, argues Lilla’s understanding of political theology fails to do justice to the natural law justifications of early modern thought that did not appeal directly to revelation or to premises drawn from revelation. Taylor observes Lilla’s argument depends on his view of political theology suggested later in his book that a genuine secular politics presumes a mechanistic understanding of the cosmos. Taylor, thus, challenges Lilla’s presumption that“the great separation” has ever been quite the achievement Lilla assumes. Taylor’s review is in the “Immanent Frame” sponsored by the Social Science Research Council.

[13] Lilla, pp. 42-45. Lilla observes that although Christianity “is inescapably political, it proved incapable of integrating this fact into Christian theology. The political organization of medieval Europe, tottering on that theological ambivalence, could not have been more perfectly arranged to exacerbate the conflict inherent in all political life…Perhaps if Christianity had seen itself as the political religion it really was, presenting the pope as an earthly sovereign with full authority over secular matters, some bloodshed could have been avoided. But living as a Christian means being in the world, including the political world, while somehow not being of it. It means living with a false consciousness.” (p.86) Lilla associates this instability in Christian political theology to the dialectic between transcendence and immanence at the heart of the incarnation. For such an astute reader of Barth it is surprising Lilla fails to understand that what is meant by such a dialectic must be Christologically determined.

[14] Lilla, p. 88.

[15] Lilla, pp. 89-91.

[16] Lilla, pp. 84-85.

[17] Lilla, p. 248.

[18] Lilla, pp. 308-309.

[19] See, for example, Michael Northcott, An Angel Directs the Storm: Apocalyptic Religion and American Empire (London: I.B. Tauris, 2004).

[20] Anthony Kronman, Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up On the Meaning of Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), p. 74.

[21] Kronman, p. 34.

[22] Kronman, p. 76.

[23] Kronman, p. 232.

[24] Kronman, p. 243. Kronman is more than ready to declare that any “religion” at some point must demand a sacrifice of the intellect because a religion finally insists that at some point thinking is not adequate to questions of life’s meaning. So every religion in a basic sense must be fundamentalist because the answers it is prepared to give to life’s questions are anchored in its own convictions. (pp. 198-199.) Kronman does not supply the necessary philosophical defense of his understanding of rationality.

[25] Kronman, pp. 172-173.

Stanley Hauerwas is the Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at the Divinity School of Duke University with a joint appointment at Duke Law School. He was named “America’s Best Theologian” by Time magazine in 2001.