Review: From Jeremiad to Jihad: Religion, Violence, and America

[1] John Carlson (an ethicist) and Jonathan Ebel (a historian) have brought together a rich collection of essays examining the intersection of religion and violence in America. An early goal of this book was “to show that September 11th was not the United States’ first experience with religion and violence,” through the expertise of scholars writing from within their own disciplines. They discovered that this multidisciplinary approach also brought “new and compelling insights into the complex historical and moral legacy of the United States” (xvi). The book consists of an introduction by the editors and fifteen chapters by several authors, including the editors. These are divided into three parts: 1) Religious Origins and Tropes of American Violence, 2) Religion and America’s “Others,” and 3) The Ethics of Violence and War.

[2] The idioms of jeremiad and jihad are used to explore ambivalence surrounding religion and violence, as evident in the unresolved character of American thinking about John Brown’s legacy and its lessons. Jeremiad features prominently in American discourse since the colonial era; it is “a biblically rooted, sustained lament about a nation or people and their failure to live up to divinely ordained ideals.” Jihad is the Arabic term for “effort” or “exertion” to “follow the path of God;” it refers to “a struggle that can involve … violence or resistance against perceived enemies of Islam” (10). Carlson and Ebel assert that “the reality is that jeremiad and jihad have more in common than first meets the eye.” Their hope is that “making the seemingly familiar strange” will contribute to “a fresh reconsideration and evaluation of their meanings” (11).

[3] The five essays in the first part explore how the religious tropes of jeremiad, covenant and providence have given meaning and purpose to different understandings of America. Together, they cover American history from the colonial period through the present, and discuss figures including John Winthrop, Cotton Mather, the Founding Fathers, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, John Foster Dulles, Martin Luther King, Jr., and President Obama. Each chapter is absorbing and perceptive, although not necessarily persuasive.[1] The first chapter is particularly useful in addressing the themes of the section. Andrew Murphy and Elizabeth Hanson examine the jeremiad from King Philip’s War to September 11 as “part of a longstanding American rhetorical tradition, one that understands the nation as existing in a special, covenanted relationship with God, with special purposes to accomplish in the world” (29). Two special claims ground the jeremiad: the epistemological involves a claim that humans are able, with a degree of certainty, to read God’s purposes in earthly events, which, “properly interpreted, provide a way to assess the spiritual health of a given community;” the ethical-theological presumes “that God’s purposes encompass the use of violence in the pursuit of religious and divinely ordained political ends.” Later variations of the jeremiad emerged; for instance, Lincoln questioned the epistemological pillar. Martin Luther King, Jr., offers a jeremiad beyond violence; he connected the civil rights movement, rooted deeply in the American, African American, and Christian tradition, to the overcoming of violence – thus rejecting the “sacralization of violence” of the ethical-theological pillar (43).

[4] The second chapter is of particular interest because, in contrast to most other chapters, it examines two iconic films – D.W. Griffith’s 1915 Birth of a Nation and Anderson’s 2007 There Will Be Blood – rather than historical events, texts, or figures. S. Brent Rodriguez-Plate argues persuasively that “film has become critical to and even constitutive of the founding mythologies of U.S. history, expressing more clearly than any other medium the centrality of violence in the American character, consciousness, and cosmos.” Film can not only narrate stories of origin, but pose “penetrating critiques” of our society and its moral dimensions. What is particularly valuable, he argues, is that Blood and other films provide “a more subtle … altogether more powerful way to approach myth: violent myths retelling violent myths as a cautionary tale of American violence” (60).

[5] The fifth chapter is an examination of the crucial role of the doctrine of providence – the “contention that God has chosen America to play a special role on the global stage” – in the formation of American identity (91). Its author, Stephen Webb, contends that “providential rhetoric is especially useful in time of political and moral crisis involving violence and war” (similar to the role of jeremiad discussed in chapter one). However, he thinks that these crises – particularly the Vietnam War, have challenged and undermined confidence in this belief. Although it has served to unify diverse ethnicities, is has also motivated Americans “to exclude and persecute others, to expand boundaries at the expense of other peoples, and to intervene in the affairs of other nations and communities.” However, Webb concludes that the doctrine of providence is “central to America’s most ethically coherent understanding of its place in the world” (92), and properly understood and applied, “is an essential ingredient in the responsible use of power” (104).

[6] The five essays on religion and America’s ‘others’ in Part Two are also absorbing and perceptive, although somewhat more sobering. In my judgment, they call into question earlier assertions about the beneficial use of religious tropes of jeremiad, covenant, and providence in American self-understanding. The most disturbing is perhaps the sixth chapter, where author John Corrigan explores biblical exhortations to religious violence that conceive of Anglo-Americans as the “New Israel” and Native Americans, Catholics, and Mormons as the “New Amalek” (whom God ordered the Israelites to destroy, according to two passages in the Old Testament.) In his iconic “city on a hill” sermon before landing in Massachusetts in 1630, John Winthrop spoke of the Amalekites. These references were, according to Corrigan, “important less for their illustrating the necessity of obedience to God than for their encouragement to genocide” (112). During the next three centuries, non-Christian Native Americans came to be viewed as religious opponents, who deserved extermination, in a land that rightfully belonged to the Euro-American population (116).

[7] In chapter seven, Eddie Glaude, Jr., analyzes religion and violence in black and white. He begins with violent attacks by a mob of angry merchants in July of 1834 against two churches in New York City: the first burnt to the ground for holding an integrated Fourth of July gathering, the next an African Episcopal Church, whose pastor was accused of officiating at an interracial marriage. He contends that these attacks were fueled by a belief that “only white Protestant men could be Americans”[2] (128). Not surprisingly, the notion of America as “a shining city on a hill” has been problematic for African Americans. He suggests that all Americans must work to expose “the violence that undergirds so much of American life today … as a check of national hubris and a rejection of the illusion of American innocence” (140).

[8] In the last chapter in this section, Grace Kao explores “the search for religious meaning in the shootings at Virginia Tech.” (Kao was a professor there at the time of the shootings.) She first analyzes how some commentators quickly suspected that Seung-Hui Cho was a Muslim acting in the tradition of “Islamic terrorism.” There was absolutely no evidence to support these suspicions – Cho had a Christian upbringing, had not converted to Islam, and used Christian symbols and beliefs in his manifesto. Kao insightfully argues that “the attempts to dissociate Cho from the dominant culture and religion in America were expressly made to assure a stunned nation that ‘real’ Americans do not commit such horrific acts.” Cho was transformed “into a racial and ethnic ‘other’ by drawing upon existing prejudices and stereotypes about Asian Americans” (180-1). The second way of infusing religious meaning into the shootings was through the use of the rhetoric of jeremiad: Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church said that “God is punishing America for her sodomite sins;” Phyllis Schafly identified the root cause as the prevalence of liberal arts education, particularly feminist pedagogy (182-83). Kao notes that these messages were not well-received. Finally, she examines “more responsible and widely embraced ways of responding religiously to the tragedy” – the student-initiated makeshift memorial to the dead (originally thirty-two stones, but a controversial thirty-third added for Cho) and the official Virginia Tech Convocation (which was ecumenical and inclusive of other faiths). Kao concludes that “we should be heartened that the majority of those … who turned to religion … did so as a source of unity and healing, and not intentionally as a way to exclude, other, or condemn” (190) – thus ending this section on a hopeful note.

[9] The five chapters in the last section explore and evaluate ethical justifications of collective violence, within an American context. Together the chapters cover the period from the Revolutionary War through the contemporary “war on terror.” Chapters 11 and 12 complement each other, in that John Carlson focuses on the Revolutionary War and Stanley Hauerwas the Civil War. However, they reach different conclusions about the efficacy of just war thinking. Carlson argues that the Revolutionary War is more accurately characterized as a just war of independence, not a holy war – as some historians have charged (201-2). However, he contends that “the Revolution does not fit within binary just war/holy war categories” as usually understood. Rather, “secular and religious elements of just war thought converge in what would later be identified as ‘American civil religion’” (199).

[10] Hauerwas in contrast draws on historian Henry Stout’s Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War to critique both just war and realist approaches to war. He contends that the just war presumption that democratic societies “place an inherent limit on war” is not the case, at least with American democracy. “Americans are a people born of and in war, particularly the Civil War, and only war can sustain our belief that we are a covenanted, chosen people worth sacrificing ourselves and others for.” This provocative claim is supported by rather compelling references to Stout’s work, which examines political speeches, sermons and funeral orations, and other remarks by persons on both sides of the war. Hauerwas argues that pacifists are the realists, who learn from Augustine, Luther, and Niebuhr not to “trust those who have us make sacrifices in the name of preserving a world at war.” He adds, what the Civil War has taught us is “what happens when Christians no longer believe that Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient for the salvation of the world.” (229)

[11] The last three chapters focus on more contemporary conflicts. In chapter 13, James Turner Johnson argues that American just war reflection has contributed to efforts to limit violence (particularly against noncombatants and civilian populations), drawing in part from lessons learned in the Civil War. Turner argues that these efforts, as well as the development of precision-guided munitions, predator drones, and theater ballistic missile defense “could not have emerged from the U.S. bishops’ rejection of “war-fighting” in “The Challenge of Peace” (245). In chapter 14, Shohail H. Hashmi presents a useful examination of jeremiad and jihad in radical Islamist discourse that ranges “from righteous example and purely moral suasion to advocacy and acts of extreme violence” (250). Hashmi persuasively concludes that “religion plays as complex and malleable a role in justifying violence in the radical Islamist universe as it does in any other context” (268). In the final chapter, Jean Bethke Elshtain discusses her concern “that by overusing and conflating terms such as violence, torture, and war, we have impaired our critical thinking about the use of force and lost our ability to distinguish – intellectually, morally, and emotionally – among uses that are permissible and forbidden” (274). She draws on the just war tradition to evaluate and defend the U.S. war on terror, strongly criticizing the conflation of terror and counterterrorism – especially in “American pulpits and religious organizations” (278).[3]

[12] From Jeremiad to Jihad fulfills Carlson and Ebel’s hope that this rich collection of essays will contribute to “a fresh reconsideration and evaluation of their meanings.” It is a valuable addition to the literature on religion and violence. I recommend it for use in advanced undergraduate and graduate courses in religious studies, history, and ethics. It should also be of interest to serious readers concerned about the intersection of violence and religion in America. However, although there are a range of perspectives represented in this volume, there are some important perspectives that are missing for any adequate discussion of the ethics of war and violence.

[13] Most noticeable, in my judgment, is a coherent presentation of pacifism. Three authors (Carlson, Johnson, and Elshtain) present chapters which advance just war perspectives; both Johnson and Elshtain are dismissive of pacifist positions. Although Hauerwas presents a pacifist perspective, his chapter primarily advances the position that the church is the alternative to war (229).[4] I recommend Biblical Pacifism (Second Edition), by Dale Brown, a useful presentation from the perspective of historic Peace Churches. In addition, I recommend the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s social statement, For Peace in God’s World and the World Council of Churches “An Ecumenical Call to Just Peace.”

[14] There is also no discussion of just peacemaking in the section on the ethics of violence and war. This is a new paradigm that moves beyond the traditional dichotomy between just war and pacifism. It was developed in the 1980s by proponents of both just war theory and pacifism, who identified ten practices of just peacemaking as part of an important additional theory. This perspective is represented in the two statements just mentioned. I also recommend Just Peacemaking (New Edition), edited by Glen Stassen, and Interfaith Just Peacemaking: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives, edited by Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite.[5] Any exploration of the ethics of violence and war will be significantly enriched by consideration of this theory.


[1] Although I found Ned O’Gorman’s chapter on “From Jeremiad to Manifesto: The Rhetorical Evolution of John Foster Dulles’s ‘Massive Retaliation’” (78-90) quite interesting, I thought that most anyone who more carefully examined Dulles’ conduct of U.S. foreign policy (including support of the overthrow of democratically elected governments) would not find it persuasive. In discussing the influence of economic power over American foreign policy, Stephen Kinzer writes that John Foster Dulles “most perfectly embodied this merging of political and economic interests.” Dulles spent decades working for some of the world’s most powerful corporations before becoming Secretary of State. He ordered the 1953 coup in Iran, “which was intended in part to make the Middle East safe for American oil companies.” In 1954, he ordered another coup in Guatemala, where a nationalist government had challenged the power of United Fruit, a company his old law firm represented.” Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq, (Henry Hold & Company, 2006), 4.

[2] In chapter nine, author Lynn Neal examines how Bishop Alma White’s (1862-1946), “endorsement and defense of the Ku Klux Klan cannot be separated from her Protestant faith and her belief in a Christian America.” This is an important correction to a perception of women as only victims of violence, rather than perpetrators playing “vital roles in the dissemination of religiously intolerant ideology and in the performance of religious violence in U.S. history” (159-61).

[3] My critical response to Elshtain’s work is beyond the scope of this review. See “A Critique of Jean Bethke Elshtain’s Just War Against Terror and an Advocacy of a Constructive Alternative,” Pamela Brubaker, Glen Stassen, & Janet Parker, Journal of Religion, Conflict, and Peace, Fall 2008, 2(1),

[4] Some feminist theologians and ethicists would disagree with Hauerwas’ claim that “Christians believe a sacrifice [that of Christ] has been made that has brought an end to the sacrifice of war” (229). They argue that this Christian sacrificial theory of atonement becomes a model for sacrifice in war. See Lutheran theologian Kelly Denton-Borhaug, U.S. War-culture, Sacrifice, and Salvation (Sheffield, UK: Equinox Pubishing, 2011).

[5] I have contributed to both these volumes, but was not among the original group who developed the paradigm.

Pamela K. Brubaker

Pamela K. Brubaker is Professor of Religion Emerita at California Lutheran University.