Roundtable Religion, War, and the Formation of an American Identity

AHA Session 175
Saturday, January 7, 2012: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Superior Room B (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Harry S. Stout, Yale University
Satan and Secession: Evil and the Crisis of the Union
Edward J. Blum, San Diego State University
Religion and Reconciliation in South Carolina, 1781–90
Rebecca Brannon, University of South Carolina Aiken
James Byrd, Vanderbilt University

Session Abstract

War is always a disruptive, if not destructive, process.  It breaks families apart and leaves suffering and mourning in its wake.  Yet it can also be a radically transformative, and even unifying, event.  Communal and national unity is often created through either the experience or memory of war.  This is certainly true in American history.  The Revolutionary War, Civil War, and Second World War, while certainly destructive and disruptive, are seen as hallmark events in the formation and regulation of an American national identity.  Yet scholars have for too long overlooked the role that religion has played in both the unifying and disruptive aspects of warfare.  This panel explores the role religion has played in these three important conflicts, with the hope that such a discussion might shed additional light on the vital way religion and war have been intimately linked throughout American history.

Drawing on the work and insights of scholars at every stage of their careers, the three papers develop chronologically as well as thematically.  Rebecca Brannon examines the aftermath of the American Revolution and the way South Carolinians used religious rhetoric and social intimacies to create a culture amenable to reconciliation in the burgeoning Republic.  Brannon demonstrates the many ways that former Loyalists, religiously conservative patriots, and secular intellectuals all used religion to both make sense of the war and craft a new society in its wake.  Ed Blum, meanwhile, explores the vital role conceptions of evil played in the Civil War.  While Brannon describes religion’s role in postwar unity, Blum traces the way soldiers and citizens in both the North and South interpreted the chaos and death of the war as a manifestation of Satan’s manipulations.  Finally, Andrew Polk details the unforeseen and somewhat surprising role that religion and military chaplains played during the Second World War.  Although they still served as religious representatives, military chaplains became the de-facto bulwarks against the American soldiers’ fears.  By re-imagining the often paralyzing dangers of long range combat as a spiritual battle between faith and fear, chaplains helped the soldiers fulfill their duties, producing a legacy of religious utilitarianism that influenced American religion into the Cold War era.

Together, these three presentations will serve as a catalyst for a discussion facilitated by James Byrd and Harry Stout.  Religion has been employed to explain division, motivate action, and generate unity before, during and after American wars.  In bringing together political, social and religious history, this panel reveals religion as a vital influence in American national identity as crafted through war and its aftermath.  The panel’s participants hope that these three presentations and the discussions they engender may open up a new avenue of investigation into both war’s and religion’s effects on American society.

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