Why See America as a Religion?
Part II of Michael Vlahos' Paper, America is a Religion: Our High-Church
Politics and Sacred War
An excerpt of Michael Vlahos' paper appears below.
Click here for the complete paper with references.
Michael Vlahos, PhD teaches in the Global Security Studies program at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences. Dr. Vlahos is the author of Fighting Identity: Sacred War and World Change. His articles have appeared in Foreign Affairs, The Times Literary Supplement, Foreign Policy, and Rolling Stone. Since 2001 he has been a regular featured guest of the nationally syndicated John Batchelor Show on WABC.
To see America as a religion is to gain a kind of gnosis — a deep insight into us. Why force us to see America as a religion? How can we hold to our true faith if we stand back and see it as just another sacred construct in humanity’s long search for shared meaning and identity? Communities of belief perform best when their belief is full and unshaken.

But there are two practical and urgent reasons why we need to see ourselves for what we are, and our America as a religion. We are entering a time of crisis in America’s relationship with the world, and equally, a time of crisis in American identity. Both could soon become true tests of faith.

Crisis with the world. Sacred war is the religious vehicle for American transcendence, and has been so since our beginning (in Revolution). War plays a distinctly eschatological role in American identity and American life.

As a nation we bear witness to God’s final testament to humanity, a message to all humankind summed up in the holy words freedom, democracy, and free markets. Yet those who bear the one true word are more committed to converting others than understanding them. Like Islam: Like us.

Our interest in humanity is not empathetic or compassionate — it is religious, and what we do for humanity is essential because it is instrumental to our own identity. Those who talk about “realism” in our world relations, or the need to strictly pursue only our own “national interests,” are denying the great fundament of national interest, which is bringing God’s word and will to the rest of humanity.

American mission is distinctly different from the European religious nationalism of Victorian-era empires in that it cannot be advanced as narrowly acquisitive or selfish. European nationalists often sought to defend their greed under the cover of a “civilizing mission,” but these masks always fell away — and it never mattered.

America is both more passionate than its European cousins, and also more doctrinally pietistic. Our fervent belief in divine mission means leads America to wars with other national cultures just as savage as the prosecutions of European imperialism, but with an afterburner flame of accompanying crusader rhetoric.

When we invoke “American exceptionalism” we are making a declaration of faith — while at the same time invoking our right and responsibility to tell the world what to do. Hence the punishment we inflict on those who resist is just, because we act from higher authority.

Our 20th century world intervention — “Manifest Destiny,” “the hand of God,” “a rendezvous with Destiny” was a vision of America as the redeemer nation, and it was born in our civil war. The Federal Union sought to redeem a nation darkly corrupted, while the Confederacy sought to redeem the nation’s original, founding civic virtue: Two visions of a fall from Grace, of virtue renewed and sin cast out. Two passages, two narratives of severe purification, and only one ascension.

Woodrow Wilson transformed the Civil War’s redemption of a nation into the redemption of all humankind, a crusade FDR seemed poised to complete in 1945.

But world war was followed by Cold War. Our divine work — in birthing a United Nations so close to apocalyptic completion — now seemed farther away than ever. Because of nuclear weapons, sacred wars could not redeem the world [in creating them, had we sinned against God and fallen from grace?].

The Cold War in effect froze the mission: The millennium would be deferred. Communist Evil had found a way to survive, and the Devil would be bested only through vigilance and “a long, twilight struggle.” Only through the expression of collective piety might our nation open its veins to victory.

The “dirty wars” that followed — through the killing we did up-close-and-personal, and the endless bombing — raised a chilling possibility: That our divine calling had already been corrupted by Hiroshima, that we were now a national enterprise engaged only about the bloody business of retributive justice; that we had gone from New Testament to Old Testament nation in a single generation.

Vietnam drove us to doubt our very faith and the righteousness of American identity itself. But then the Soviet Union fell, and confidence in American Eternal Victory returned. Redemption made a comeback. The end of history was at hand, if only we had the courage to make it so. Perhaps we were on a peaceful glide path to a millennium too-long deferred.

Then 9-11. Like Pearl Harbor, the ram’s horn sounded, and our blood was up. Soon our sacred king was reaching for the language of Lincoln and Wilson and FDR. It seemed as though the moment to fulfill God’s charge had come at last. America was taking the reins of History — the sacred narrative of a mission ordained by God — and this time we would finish the job. The sacred king declared that the

… Call of history has come to the right country. Americans … know that freedom is the right of every person and the future of every nation. The liberty we prize is not America's gift to the world; it is God’s gift to humanity.

Yet 9-11’s did not blossom into another sacred war, nor did it become another national transcendence like World War II. We did not redeem (“transform” or convert) the world of Islam. Instead we found ourselves in another corrosive war of punishment and retributive justice, still playing out as a murderous, endless loop.

For America’s century, war has been the driver of America’s relations with humanity as a whole — because war serves the purposes of the national religion. Yet since 1945, sacred war — either as the vehicle for national transcendence or “top dog” branding [for “realists”] — has failed us.

But more than war failed us. By putting sacred war on hold, the Cold War created a new norm, in which the demonstration and display of resplendent American military power, rather than war itself, became the interim purpose of the national religion. Now American identity increasingly became invested in military superiority (over all others). “Alliance” for Americans became synonymous with military pacts — and submission to American military power. In a world where media-symbolic power transactions defined our top-dog status, “leadership” and “respect” become America’s most important world goals, made possible only through “strength.”

Yet by failing in our Islamic war to achieve the goals of an official sacred war on the battlefield, American identity has lost its claim on world authority as well — because our military cannot achieve what its enormous power tells the world it should, and what we boasted we could. Put simply, we have become the Emperor telling the world that he has no clothes. We insist on “keeping up appearances, even as we exclaim: “Hey, we’re naked!”

This is a crisis-in-waiting, because American world authority has become inseparable from American identity. It is a core doctrine in our religious canon — yet it has failed to add another testament to national scripture. Americans are told that the nation is in decline, and Americans believe this: Because it is true. It is true on the terms that we asserted in the 20th century, and the terms that we continue to demand, but which our national high church (and its military) cannot deliver.

Plus the rest of the world believes it too, because they too have watched the wreckage of American sacred war this past decade. The consequences are easy to see — they are right in front of us. America can exact punishing retributive justice at will. Just look at the damage our drone killings have done to Al Qaeda. But it is plain America can no longer spread God’s Good News and do his good works. It can level societies with ease but has lost the magic, as Iraq and Afghanistan showed, to rebuild them.

Hence the rest of humankind is no longer willing to accommodate itself to a world system designed to fulfill American’s need to fulfill our destiny. The world made room begrudgingly after 1945, eventually even China and Russia. But the signs and portents everywhere today say: No longer.

When Bellah wrote, in 1967, Vietnam’s looming crisis of defeat was already with us, whispering of national agonies of faith to come.

Then as now, the crisis of American defeat is, like all defeats, first and foremost a crisis of faith. As our world authority has ebbs, so our belief in ourselves falters:

  • If we are in economic decline, and are no longer masters of war, how can we reclaim world leadership? But how could we possibly reassert the notion that prevailed throughout the Cold War — that we are still somehow the stainless leader of the Free World?
  • What is America’s “world role” (i.e., identity) if it is no longer world leader and “closer” of History? After all, the only traditional alternative is the unthinkable “isolationism” — which was the default strategic position of the United States when it was weak. But when we got strong — stand back! Remember, we were God’s foal — to be guarded and nurtured until grown.
  • How can an exceptional nation become an ordinary nation without failing God and all those who gave “their last measure of devotion”? Our fallback models then become those we defeated in desperate war: Japan and Germany. Can we become them, and still look proudly in the mirror?
  • If our mission in history is divinely ordained, how can we fail, unless God is abandoning the United States of America? Byzantines agonized over their defeats, believing that their own failings were somehow tied to an almighty visitation: That failing the Lord, the Lord frowned. Pure and simple. But are we Americans in modernity anymore advanced?

Such questions themselves tell us about the crisis to come.

Crisis within ourselves. If sacred war is intertwined in the wellbeing of our identity, then defeat weakens us. Only a strong and united people can overcome and persevere to victory. But what of a people who cannot persevere, who no longer believe in victory? What does defeat then say about us, and the American future?

In our minds today, our feckless parade of war, year-after-year, glitters like a faux-gilded arch over a corrupt and failing system — and the system, above all, is the leadership province of the sacred king. Hence, for the war president, his welcoming permission of a rotten government-to-financial industry bargain was as corrupt as the rot itself, just as his war leadership led the way to defeat — and implosion in 2008.

Our sacred king is expected to keep the nation healthy, just as he is expected to lead the nation victorious in war. Nor can a festering and failed war be separated from sickness at home. Americans’ fears are fanned by the state of the American Body.

Moreover, a national crisis of identity shows itself first in religious politics as an unbridgeable sectarian divide.

Here we can see how our public rites are getting more elaborate and intensely demanding of adherents.  Americanism itself is getting more religious — both more pietistic and more liturgical. Long ago in our national life, horse-trading trumped high ritual. Politicos actually wrangled over patronage and spoils at party conventions — that was what they were about.

The intensification of public-religious ritual is an indicator of a transfigured relationship between our two competing Churches (sects). Our nation needs religious affirmations of identity more than ever, but it seems that identity is splitting passionately between the two Party sects.

Here we must remember how American religion works: Our unique American compact is carefully configured for two party sects to compete and cooperate so that the national religion remains vital and fresh. Why is this important? Because it keeps the ruling idea of America always refreshed and alive — we all seek victory in the competition.

The prize is what our two parties seek, yet it is, even as attained, a dove of the moment. When one party stumbles it means that a better take on Americanism can take over — for a while. But the main innovation is ensuring making renewal built-in. The system is evangelically and institutionally self-renewing. America is ever-refreshed because its religion demands an impermanence of church doctrine and orthodoxy.

This is the jewel in the crown of the American Blueprint-for-Life. Call it America’s cutting-edge take on evolutionary adaptation: The vigorous contest between two parties, meaning, two churning enterprises of American identity and renewal.

Yet so adaptive a construct can still break down — and it has broken down. How does it break down?

A belief system (the American religion) rooted in constant adaptation is at the same time implicitly under enormous pressure. A change-based belief system can only hold together as long as there is an overarching, grand political-religious compact. This compact at an existential level must wholly and absolutely embrace a shared belief in a unity of sacred identity — a belief that must always be more fervent than the differences between sects.

We are all, above all, Americans, and it is here that our congregation must be as one. If we become schismatic: Meaning, if we begin to tell ourselves that the other moiety is the not-America, or un-American, or anti-American, the opposite of us, the alien other, the betrayer in our midst — where only we are the true Americans — we veer toward catastrophe and the death of the nation.

This was the terrible tale of 1861, set up and prefigured tragically decades before. By the early 1800s the shadows of schism were already darkening politics, no matter how righteous American patriots (religionists) fought to hold us together.

But America broke apart — and civil war was our bloody harvest.

Our national politico-religious life since 1865 tells us that the creative relationship of two sects is best harnessed through the benevolent dominance of one over the other: Periodically exchanged. Think of this not so much as a submission to main force, but rather in the spirit of “I have a better idea, and I won!” It is totally with the defeated party then to reimagine and instantize a new political-religious vision: The next better idea, and drive it home in an election to come.

Hence the Republican party-system owned politics from 1865 to 1896, with only two Democratic terms. Remarkably this charter was renewed in 1896 for another 36 years, again granting Democrats only two presidential terms. From 1932 to 1980 Democrats dominated, with infrequent Republicans looking like pious moderate Democrats (like Eisenhower and Nixon). From 1980 to our present, Republicans again hold the whip hand, with Clinton and Obama in Eisenhower center-right mien, garbed in good Republican wool-cloth.

But there are earth-shaking discontents racing beneath the surface of our religious politics. As never before since the 1850s, there are emerging two separate and opposed visions of Americanism. Moreover, the political grist of compromise and cooperation — which has sustained the very co-existence of two competing sects since 1876 — is evaporating.

It is noteworthy that piety and churchgoing are on the rise in America. Intensifying “churching” is an indicator that Americans are becoming more evangelical, proselytizing, and pietistic. The Calvinist surge especially tells us how Old Churches still seek to capture an American Sect. In itself this is a portent of schisms to come: Signs that sectarian battle lines are entrenching themselves and girding again for battle in American life.

As in the 1850s, two distinct American blueprints for life have emerged out of one, and each defines itself in opposition to the other. The Republican Way demands stainless virtue. The Democratic Way demands civic altruism. Surely our canon intends for both to make us whole Americans. But each sect today is clear that the other is, prima facie, The Other: The antithesis of national identity.

The danger here is not only that neither sect dominates, but also that each comes to see the other as the mortal enemy of American identity. As battle lines are drawn among American citizens the stakes become existentially all or nothing. Religious advertising tells us: If Republicans win the people will be reduced to serfdom. If Democrats win, “European Socialism” will reign, and American virtue will be lost. Are we not already there?

Our religion is casting off its moorings. Twin religious traditions of virtue (the bedrock doughty, armed individual citizen) and civic altruism (the state as collective expression of how we care for one another) — so long ago carved in the wall of ethos — must be balanced if the nation itself is to survive and prosper. Today our Blue and Red chalices of identity are being relocated to separate chapels of identity — physically if not forever irreconcilable.

As with all great faiths, the deepest truth is that the congregation must believe altogether. Hence with the American faith-enterprise, the great crisis we face is a crisis of belief. The nation must address the decline of its religious compact, preferably through an explicit rite of renewal and purification (a collective casting out of the divisiveness).

But here we Americans find ourselves as hobbled and poor in alternatives as those 18th century European regal dynasties in whose passionate opposition we created ourselves. Today Americans are shot through with anxiety and apprehension, but we seem to have only one solution. We always turn to the sacred king. Go to Mt. Vernon and gaze on the sacred king Washington. Watch the Spielberg movie Lincoln. Behold us, expectant.

Yet the sacred king W failed us, while the heavenly promise of his successor has drained away, at least in terms of ju-ju squandered. Americans long for the savior, the prophet, The Return of the King: Of one of our own coming to us in unearthly splendor and eternal promise.

Are these all signs and portents that God has abandoned the United States of America? Fears of America’s decline — seemingly so pragmatic in the policy world — are really deep-seated fears that we are no longer exceptional. The Republican charge against the Democrats is that they betrayed the nation in the eyes of God. But that in turn is the very Democratic j’accuse to the GOP: That their impious vanity led the nation down the path of false pride — and perdition.

In our self-made Wilderness we seek the one who will lead us to the Promised Land.

We cry out his name, but he does not come.