Review: U.S. War Culture, Sacrifice and Salvation

[1] I have been stunned by the careful discernment offered by Kelly Denton-Borhaug in her book of 2011, U.S. War Culture, Sacrifice and Salvation. When it comes to the service of the Christian church to the wider culture, this kind of theological and social analysis functions as a prophetic witness that reveals to ourselves just who we are as a people and as a nation. In what follows, I’d like to respond to Denton-Borhaug’s prophetic prompt within the framework of public theology in the United States.

The Task of Public Theology

[2] Public theology, I contend, should be conceived in the church, reflected on critically in the academy, and meshed within the wider culture for the benefit of the wider culture. This threesome does not describe a temporal sequence; rather, all three occur simultaneously and mutually influence each other in an almost perichoretic fashion.1

[3] “Meshed”? Yes, meshed. Why? Public theologian Katie Day alerts us that a postmodern recognition of social processes sees truth and authority as shared in context. “In a Postmodern approach, theological truth is co-produced; the context is not the recipient of theological claims but the co-generator of them.”2 Appeals to scripture or tradition which function authoritatively within the church must yield to co-generation of illuminative thinking within each specific public. Hence, “meshed within the wider culture.”

[4] So, according to Paul Chung, “Public theology is a theological-philosophical endeavor to provide a broader frame of reference to facilitate the responsibility of the church and theological ethics for social, political, economic, and cultural issues. It investigates public issues, developing conceptual clarity and providing social-ethical guidance of religious conviction and response to them.”3

[5] Public theology provides the frame. Now, what’s in the picture? What’s in the picture is the task of discerning U.S. war-culture and constructing a prophetic response.

The Already Religious Dimension to U.S. War-Culture

[6] It was Paul Tillich who alerted us to look for religion outside religious institutions. In his approach to the Theology of Culture (Kulturtheologie), Tillich recognized that the religious dimension actualizes itself in every dimension of the Spirit (Sondern das Religiöse ist aktuel in allen Provinzen des Geistigen), especially culture.4

[7] This recognition of spiritual or religious dimensions to putatively secular life surfaces again in the work of political theologian William Cavanaugh. According to Cavanaugh, the so-called secular government of the United States has confiscated the religious sacred. American patriotism amounts to “the transfer of care for the holy from church to state.”5 Speaking as a Roman Catholic, Cavanaugh can render a prophetic judgment: such nationalism is “the age-old sin of idolatry.”6 This implies, among other things, that “In important ways, the United States has not really secularized at all. What has happened instead is that in the modern era the holy has migrated from the church to the state.”7 The so-called secular state does not supersede its Christian tradition; rather, it plugs into Christian electricity and runs off borrowed religious energy.

[8] Now let us turn specifically to political theologian Kelly Denton-Borhaug, who discerns a specific form of war-culture energizing the American social psyche. The war-culture is omnipresent. “I define war-culture as the normalized interpenetration of the institutions, ethos and practices of war with ever-increasing facets of daily human life, economy, institutions and imagination in the United States.”8

[9] Not only is the war-culture pervasive, it’s absorbent. It has absorbed the Christian religion within it. Here’s how. The sacrifice of Jesus on the cross instrumental to human salvation within the Christian tradition has been stolen, so to speak, and repurposed to support American war-culture. Now, it is the dead soldier who pays the ultimate sacrifice so that we Americans can live in freedom. The soldier saves. American war-culture is an invisible religion, made rich by stealing symbols from the Christian religion and repurposing them for nationalistic ends.

[10] Denton-Borhaug assigns to public theology an honest and prophetic analysis. “In the U.S. context, we must find ways to expose and question this framework of blood sacrifice uniting war-culture, nationalism, and Christianity.”9 The task of the public theologian is to discern what is happening and make it transparent.

[11] What’s happening? From the toy guns of our children to the video games of our teenagers to the actual triggers our soldiers pull, we swim in a war-culture like a fish swims in the sea. And, just as the fish is hardly aware of the water, so also we who live in the war-culture find our disposition to war invisible. The discerning public theologian can help make visible what is present yet invisible. This is the task of discernment Kelly Denton-Borhaug has assigned to herself. It’s an assignment we might all take on.

[12] Ronald Stone, a scholar who has attempted to explicate Tillich’s political theology, sounds an alarm: We dare not underestimate the pervasive presence and influence of the war-culture. It is, plainly, the culture of death.

[13] We encourage children, neurotic or normal, to play games of violent death, to learn music of death, to read literature of death, and…to project human wars into the stars. Our movie theaters become temples of the gods of death projected in huge images on screens, while we stuff ourselves full of innutritious calories to compensate for the horror filling our minds….This sick culture sustains and defends the arms industry that provides weapons for children here and the armies and paramilitaries of the rest of the world. First, we arm countries and then have to crush them, isolate them, embargo them, or bomb them.10

[14] What kind of country do Americans want to live in? What are the values that should imbue the daily life of American citizens? Perpetual warfare? Really? Without discernment Americans will simply roll on like the Mississippi River annually overflowing its banks with nationalism, jingoism, bombing, invasion, and airport runways paved in flag covered caskets.

[15] Because of words such as “national security” or “national defense,” military readiness can be morally justified, to be sure. Genuine security and defense are necessary, even admirable. Yet, the discerning public theologian should demonstrate how these terms cover up and hide the underlying war-culture which cannot put the brakes on pervasive and unremitting militarism.


[16] Kelly Denton-Borhaug along with similar minds helps the public theologian to discern the pervasive role played by U.S. war-culture. She wants the public theologian in concert with spokespersons for the culture together to grasp what is at stake. This shared understanding is possible when the public theologian is “enmeshed” with the culture being analyzed.

[17] Even though U.S. war-culture sits right in front of our eyes, it’s largely invisible. The prophetic voice calls: Look! See! Discern! Acknowledge!


1 See: Ted Peters, “Public Theology: Its Pastoral, Apologetic, Scientific, Political, and Prophetic Tasks,” International Journal of Public Theology, forthcoming.

2 Katie Day, “Social Cohesion and the Common Good: Drawing on Social Science in Understanding the Middle East,” Companion to Public Theology, eds., Sebastian Kim and Katie Day (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2017) 211-230, at 214.

3 Paul S. Chung, Postcolonial Public Theology: Faith, Scientific Rationality, and Prophetic Dialogue (Eugene OR: Cascade Books, 2016) 1.

4 Paul Tillich, “Űber die Idee einer Theologie der Kultur” (1919), in Main Works/Hauptwerke, Carl Heinz Ratschow, editor in chief (6 Volumes: Berlin and New York: De Gruyter—Evangelishces Verlagswerk GmbH, 1989) 2:69-86, at 73.

5 William T. Cavanaugh, Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church (Grand Rapids MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2011) 3.

6 Ibid., 2.

7 Ibid., 112.

8 Kelly Denton-Borhaug, U.S. War Culture, Sacrifice and Salvation (London and New York: Routledge, 2011) 8.

9 Ibid., 176.

10 Ronald Stone, “The Religious Situation and Resistance in 2001,” Religion in the New Millennium: Theology in the Spirit of Paul Tillich, eds., Raymond F. Bulman and Frederick J. Parrella (Atlanta: Mercer University Press, 2001) 55-62 (59).

Ted Peters

Ted Peters is an author, professor, and pastor. He is Research Professor Emeritus in Systematic Theology and Ethics at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary (PLTS), the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (CTNS), and the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) in Berkeley, California.