Skip to main content Accessibility help

Review Essay: Religion, War, and the Meaning of America

  • Harry S. Stout


The norm of American national life is war. From colonial origins to the present, Americans have never seen a generation that was not preoccupied with wars, threats of wars, and military interventions on foreign soils. This is not something Americans—or American historians—are trained to think about. In American memory and mythology, the United States is, at heart, a nation of peace; it unleashes the quiver of war as a last resort and only when pushed. In like manner religion, especially what we now call evangelical Protestantism, has been a conspicuous presence in American wars from the seventeenth century to the present. American wars are sacred wars and American religion, with some notable exceptions, is martial at the very core of its being. The ties between war and religion are symbiotic and the two grew up inextricably intertwined.



Hide All


1. For a classic account of the role of “manifest destiny” throughout American history, see Weinberg, Albert K., Manifest Destiny: A Study of Nationalist Expansionism in American History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1935).

2. See Stout, Harry S., Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War (New York: Viking, 2006).

3. For classic accounts of the Monroe Doctrine and its aftermath, see Bemis, Samuel Flagg, John Quincy Adams and the Foundations of American Foreign Policy (New York: Knopf, 1949); and May, Ernest R., The Making of the Monroe Doctrine (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1974).

4. See Stout, , Upon the Altar of the Nation, 191–93.

5. Quoted in Friedman, Leon, The Law of War: A Documentary History, 2 vols. (New York: Random House, 1972), 1: xix .

6. These totals do not include covert activities, blockades, proxy wars, assassinations, or the threats of war for geopolitical gain (as in President James K. Polk's famous threat to England, “fifty-four forty or fight!” to acquire the Pacific Northwest).

7. Butler, Jon, “Jack-in-the-Box Faith: The Religion Problem in Modern American History,” Journal of American History 90 (March 2004): 13571478 .

8. Among the texts I examined are: Albanese, Catherine L., America, Religions and Religion, 2d ed. (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1992); Butler, Jon, Wacker, Grant, and Balmer, Randall, Religion in American Life: A Short History, updated ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008); Corbett, Julia Mitchell, Religion in America (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1990); Hudson, Winthrop S. and Corrigan, John, Religion in America, 5th ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1992); Handy, Robert T., A History of the Churches in the United States and Canada (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979); Williams, Peter W., America's Religions: Traditions and Cultures (New York: Macmillan, 1990); Marty, Martin E., Pilgrims in Their Own Land: 500 Years of Religion in America (Boston: Little, Brown, 1984); Marsden, George M., Religion and American Culture (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990); and Scott, Edwin Gaustad, and Schmidt, Leigh, The Religious History of America (San Francisco: Harper, 2002). I did not include Mark Noll's exhaustive A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992) because it restricts its coverage to Christianity.

9. See Novick, Peter, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

10. The evolution of this transformation is traced in Stout, Harry S. and Taylor, Robert M. Jr., “Studies of Religion in American Society: The State of the Art,” in New Directions in American Religious History, ed. Stout, Harry S. and Hart, D. G. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 1550 .

11. Hudson and Corrigan, Religion in America.

12. Corbett, , Religion in America, 298 .

13. Ibid., 254.

14. Butler, , Wacker, , and Balmer, , Religion in American Life, 424 .

15. Ibid., 231–43. In some texts, Lincoln's religion appears as a proxy for the Civil War. For similar coverage, see Gaustad, and Schmidt, , The Religious History of America, 194–96; Williams, , America's Religions, 183 ; or Handy, , A History of the Churches in the United States and Canada, 267–68. Elsewhere I have attempted to explore the religious meaning of the Civil War in Upon the Altar of the Nation.

16. Butler, , Wacker, , and Balmer, , Religion in American Life, 323429 .

17. Gaustad, and Schmidt, , The Religious History of America, 324–28; and Marty, , Pilgrims in Their Own Land, 365, 474–76.

18. Williams, , America's Religions, 144 .

19. For example, see Jewett, Robert, The Captain America Complex: The Dilemma of Zealous Nationalism (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1973).

20. Richard Hofstadter is generally credited with coining the term “consensus,” in which he pointed to “the defense of freedom as the thread that wove American history.” See especially Hofstadter's The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (New York: Knopf, 1948). For descriptions of “progressive” and “consensus” historiography, see Gene Wise, American Historical Explanations: A Strategy for Grounded Inquiry (Homewood, Ill.: Dorsey Press, 1973); and Novick, That Noble Dream.

21. See Tuveson, Ernest Lee, Redeemer Nation: The Idea of America's Millennial Role (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968); and Bercovitch, Sacvan, The American Jeremiad (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978).

22. For works exploring American civil religion by historians and sociologists, see, for example: Bellah, Robert N., The Broken Covenant: American Civil Religion in Time of Trial (New York: Seabury Press, 1975); Cherry, Conrad, ed., God's New Israel: Religious Interpretations of American Destiny (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971); Hudson, Winthrop S., Nationalism and Religion in America: Concepts of American Identity and Mission (New York: Harper and Row, 1970); Jewett, The Captain America Complex; Mead, Sidney E., The Nation with the Soul of a Church (New York: Harper and Row, 1975); Richey, Russell E. and Jones, Donald G., eds., American Civil Religion (New York: Harper and Row, 1974); Strout, Cushing, The New Heavens and New Earth: Political Religion in America (New York: Harper and Row, 1974); Tuveson, Redeemer Nation; Wilson, John F., Public Religion in American Culture (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1979); Moorhead, James H., American Apocalypse: Yankee Protestants and the Civil War, 1860–1869 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978); and Stout, Upon the Altar of the Nation.

23. To be clear, other texts include the term “civil religion,” most notably Marsden's Religion and American Culture, 42–45. But none organize their text around a co-equal American civil religion existing alongside of particular denominations and American “religions.”

24. Albanese, , America, Religions and Religion, 434 .

25. Ibid., 439. See also Albanese, Catherine L., Sons of the Fathers: The Civil Religion of the American Revolution (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1976).

26. Albanese, , America, Religions and Religion, 454–55.

27. Ibid., 458. In their most recent edition of Religion in America, Hudson and Corrigan differ from Albanese, noting “civil religion is far from dead” (428).

28. While Albanese chooses not to trace the causative links between war and civil religion, she does address the (international) “religion” of American popular culture, with a particular emphasis on film, sports, rock and roll music, and nature religion (463–500). In fact, both are crucial dimensions of the religious meaning of America.


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed