Religion a Strong Current in U.S. Wars

Times Staff Writer

As the United States prosecutes war with Iraq, many supporters of the effort have invoked religious language to define the national purpose, making themselves part of a long stream in American history.

From the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1600s through a young nation’s westward expansion to the two world wars of the 20th century, the belief that American purposes reflect a divine will and blessing has served to inspire, sustain and, in the eyes of critics, to warp American views of the world.

Controversy over the current war has focused particular attention, not only on the faith of President Bush and its possible influence on his decisions, but also on the religious roots of what scholars call American exceptionalism: the belief that the country is uniquely blessed and has a God-given obligation to share that blessing with and secure it for others.


The idea has deep roots in America’s past. Sailing to the New World on the ship Arabella in 1630, the Puritan minister John Winthrop wrote a sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity,” that set out what he saw as God’s purposes for the colony of New England.

“We shall be as a city upon a hill,” he said. It was a phrase often repeated by President Reagan during his presidency.

In 1845 the idea that the hand of God was at work in America acquired a name, which provided a justification for the nation’s westward expansion and a war with Mexico. Democratic leader and editor John L. O’Sullivan wrote of “our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.”

Similar religious language has been used by many national leaders since.

“We are a nation under God,” Reagan said in 1984. “I’ve always believed that this blessed land was set apart in a special way, that some divine plan placed this great continent here between the oceans to be found by people from every corner of the Earth who had a special love for freedom and the courage to uproot themselves, leave homeland and friends, to come to a strange land.”

Bush has expressed a similar sentiment in several speeches, including one at Ellis Island on the anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks, in which he borrowed a phrase from the New Testament: “This ideal of America is the hope of all mankind .... That hope still lights our way. And the light shines in the darkness. And the darkness will not overcome it,” he said.


A Religious Divide

Religious Americans are, on average, more likely to support the current war than their more secular countrymen, even though a large share of the nation’s religious leaders oppose it. Scholars say the long religious tradition of seeing America as a special nation may help explain that.

A Gallup Poll this month found that 60% of Americans who say religion is very important in their lives supported military action against Iraq.

By contrast, among those who said religion is not very important, only 49% supported the war.

For those who see American civilization as superior, there is “quite often more readiness to exert ourselves in the world,” said William R. Hutchison, a professor of the history of religion in America at Harvard University.

Nearly half of Americans (48%) said they think the United States has had special protection from God for most of its history, according to a poll a year ago by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Four in 10 took the opposite view.

That belief is strongest among white evangelical Protestants, a group that makes up about a quarter of the nation’s population and that is a core constituency for the Republican party. Among that group, 71% said in the Pew center poll that they think the United States has special divine protection. Among white non-evangelical Protestants and Catholics, only four in 10 took that position.

“Evangelicals believe there is a purpose for our nation: to be good, to give, to help the oppressed, to strive for equality,” said Ted Haggard, the newly appointed president of the National Assn. of Evangelicals. That belief, he said, is “the whole idea of the powerful using their strength to serve the weak.”

Professor Jeffrey Walz of Concordia University Wisconsin in Mequon, Wis., said: “One tenet that many evangelicals would subscribe to is this idea of American exceptionalism, this sense that the U.S. is a city on a hill, that we have a special role and place in history, that America is a nation chosen by God to be an example to other nations.”

“The question of how evangelicalism might be impacting world events would go back to American exceptionalism,” he said. “I see this as well in Bush.”

“We are an impatient country, and we have been historically, at least in part because of our confident view of America’s role in the world. We tend to want to dive in and involve ourselves, or have historically -- and then sort out some of the details later,” Walz said.

Evangelicals do not have a corner on patriotism, said Jack Fitzmier, professor of religious history and dean of the Claremont School of Theology. Many Americans, regardless of their faith, regard the flag and the Bible as important. “But evangelicals tend to baptize it,” he said.

A Range of Ideas

Yet within American evangelicalism there is a range of ideas on how God and country are properly joined.

Some religious figures have allied faith to power in support of broad national purposes. By contrast, other religious leaders have viewed power with suspicion and sought to separate religion from government.

In 1992, for example, eight liberal evangelical scholars published a book, “No God But God: Breaking with the Idols of Our Age.” In it, one author lamented that “many American evangelicals have been truly more American than Christian, more dependent on historical myths than spiritual realities, more shaped by the flag than the cross.”

A decade later, the split was summed up by Jim Wallis, executive director and editor of Sojourners, an evangelical magazine based in Washington, D.C., which generally takes liberal positions on economic and social justice issues.

“Religion either is invoked to bring God’s blessing on our activities or is used to hold us accountable to God’s intentions. Those are very different purposes,” Wallis said in an interview. “Evangelicals fall on both sides of that.”