He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, God and War: American Civil Religion since 1945, and reported the following:
God and War raises questions about civil religion as it tries to document the evolution of the term since 1945. Among the most pressing of these questions is one that will probably never be fully answered but is vital to ask of every generation: what would a genuine moral accounting of a nation at war look like? Abraham Lincoln was the first to recognize the profound irony of America’s relationship to war in terms universally applicable to American history. Through his experience in the Civil War, he saw a particular kind of American tragedy unfold: Americans would find war, at once, both a terrible consequence of their contemporary world and a chance to redeem their nation through martial sacrifice. To my mind, the history since 1945 demonstrates that we continue to live with Lincoln’s observation—it is his bequest to us.Learn more about God and War at the Rutgers University Press website.
The “Page 99 Test” worked for God and War because on it I discuss how the American bicentennial celebration of 1976 posed an ironic moment for the nation. Here was a country that wanted to celebrate its “exceptional” birth but had to do so in the shadow of the gravest national crises since the Civil War—Watergate and Vietnam.
By the mid-1970s, America had, metaphorically, been brought to its knees and a nation that considered itself proudly religious, now had to consider what being “under God” truly meant. I wrote that this presented “a moment of genuine reflection as American civil religion became contrite.” But what would a national act of contrition look like? “If the nation were to be saved, it had to be reborn,” I observed, “and American civil religion offered a way for Americans of diverse religious faiths to share in a born-again experience, which, of course, only evangelical Christians traditionally had. But because this had to be a civil religious experience, the meaning of this national rebirth was hotly contested. At base, the conflict pitted those who believed America could be made ‘moral’ again against those who worked to make it less immoral.”
The rest of the book takes off from this central conflict, running from the different visions of an American future between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan to the present paradox of Americans honoring the military as their most valuable institution while mourning the loss of soldiers for deaths in wars and for a nation that they feel ambivalent about.