Our problem with David Pence’s Aug. 31 commentary “The world as it is: The influence of religion” is its timeworn call for an American commitment to “deep communal loyalties of religion and nation.” We are not certain what this phrase means. And, we take issue with the conflation of “religion” and “nation,” because they are different things.
We believe that most Americans agree that religious influence and nation-building are two different things, calling for two different loyalties. Most Americans would say that religion is a private matter. Individuals should be loyal to their God. But, nation-building is a public matter to be decided by politicians, not by clerics. Accordingly, whether to be loyal to nation-building is also a private matter, but not a religious matter.
Based on these distinctions, most Americans would say that America should not fight religious wars. We agree.
However, historically, the United States has religiously consecrated its nation-building. At least since Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, American politicians have religiously incarnated the idea of nation-building. Who could forget Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg? President Lincoln said:
“But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have hallowed it, far above our poor power to add or detract.”
By these words, Lincoln religiously consecrated the Civil War. Lincoln’s words make us want to have faith that the North’s cause — America’s cause — was blessed by the Almighty.
But, there is a horrific side to the Civil War. Americans do remember that the Civil War was probably avoidable and that it resulted in 750,000 American deaths. That toll is the equivalent of 250 Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Additionally, at the time of the Civil War, Americans numbered only 31 million. So, 2½ percent of Americans were killed in the Civil War — 1 of every 40 Americans.
When modern Americans look at the historic facts of the Civil War, they do not jump in jubilation embracing the religious, nation-building exercise that it was. Instead, there is a proper religious ambivalence about the Civil War, because it was a horrific war.
Today, Americans such as President Obama have a similarly proper religious ambivalence about the major American foreign interventions since World War II: Korea, Vietnam, Kuwait and Iraq. America’s current religious ambivalence about war is a direct result of these post-World War II foreign interventions. First, those wars didn’t all go that well. Second, America’s military-industrial complex, as President Dwight Eisenhower called it, promoted the wars so it could obtain wartime profits. Third, why make God responsible for wars that go badly? Fourth, conflating religion with war desecrates God. Fifth, religiously consecrating war leaves politicians with an all-too-ready excuse for the sin of war.
So, most Americans have come to disagree with the religious consecration of battlefields. Americans do not want the president to conflate religion and war. In fact, it is considered an ugly conflation to be avoided.
Importantly, there is a point where Lincoln and Pence disagree. As previously discussed, Lincoln conflated nation-building with religion because he wanted more nation-building. But, Pence conflates religion with nation-building because he wants more religion.
We disagree with Pence that nation-building in the United States will lead to more religion. We know what a religious nation is. A religious nation is dominantly one religion. There are so many religious nations today that it is hard to name only a few. Israel, Iran and Russia come to mind. These nations and others will and do fight wars in the name of religion.
But, we disagree that the United States will ever be a religious nation, because, as it is, it will never be dominated by one religion. Rightly or wrongly, Americans, instead of practicing one religion, practice thousands. So, at most, America could be called a religious-y nation, but not a religious nation.
In a religious-y nation, any religious people, being a minority, have no political mandate for religious war. So, religious people in America should give up on more religiously consecrated wars like the Civil War.
Ironically, then, religious people in America should do the opposite of what Pence advises. Pence recommends “deep communal loyalties of religion and nation.” We advise the opposite. They should split their loyalties: Religious people in America should be loyal to God and, at the same time, disloyal to American nation-building.
Erick Kaardal is a Minneapolis attorney. Tom Dahlberg is a former mayor of Shorewood. They are co-authors of “Neopopulism as Counterculture.”