Venturing to Disapprove: Religion and Identity in Mark Twain's "The War Prayer"

This is a paper I presented in 2007 to the Kentucky Philological Association.  There are a couple of different ways to view this.  You can click on this link (Venturing to Disapprove) to view or download it, or you can read the whole thing right here in your browser.  Your choice.  Let me know you what you think.

Venturing to Disapprove: Religion and Identity in Mark Twain’s The War Prayer

It was indeed a glad and gracious time, and the half-dozen rash spirits that ventured to disapprove of the war and cast a doubt upon its righteousness straightway got such a stern and angry warning that for their personal saftey’s sake they quickly shrank out of sight and offended no more in that way.

-Mark Twain, The War Prayer


Recently, Jeff Sharlet wrote an essay in Harper’s Magazine that explored the extent to which the Religious Right in America has conducted the task of “reimagining U.S. History” as the subject of a divine plan (34).  The denouement of this divine plan, he contends,  is a particular kind of theocracy that, while it does not exist at present, is thought to have existed at certain points in American history.  The task of American history on this view, therefore, lies in discerning God’s movement in the life of America’s past.  Given the right lens—which is to say, the lens provided by certain forms of Christian fundamentalism—God’s movement, as well as a divinely ordered political structure, can be reliably located within the history of the United States.  Accordingly, the story of America’s Christian past, though concealed and obscured by “secular” historical accounts, reveals God’s unfolding plan for America as an instrument for the accomplishment of divine purposes for the rest of the world.[1]

The fundamentalist belief in the institutionalization of Christianity in the American government is supported by a literal reading of Romans 13, which says: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is not authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.  Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment” (13:1-2).[2]  According to this line of thinking, the state serves the church’s broader mission.  As such, the state has a certain specific function: “The symbol of the state is a sword.  Not a spoon, feeding the poor, not a teaching instrument to educate our young . . . .And the sword is an instrument of death!” (Sharlet 43).

The seemingly unproblematic alignment of providential ends with the national agenda characterizes a significant portion of historic American self-identification.  That the agendas are variable and often contested does not discourage attempts to link particular partisan aims with the aims of God.  This paper explores the conflation of the aims of church and state as an American historical phenomenon through the work of Mark Twain’s The War Prayer.  By setting Twain’s satiric use of religious language beside another popular but earnest use of religious language for political/military goals—namely, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”—we will seek to clarify the overt ideological project of the text.  Mark Twain satirizes this standard American trope (i.e., “God is on our side”) in his 1905 short work of fiction, The War Prayer.  This paper will argue, through an application of Marxist critical theory, that war and patriotism are foregrounded thematically in the text in ways that serve the larger, overt ideological project: religious ideology as foundational in valorizing other oppressive ideologies.  Moreover, we will argue that a significant binary opposition exposed by such a Marxist literary critical reading of this text privileges the temperance of an enlightened humanism over the intrinsic violence of religion.

However, we will argue that the religion/humanism binary in The War Prayer is a false one—just to the extent that the subversive use of a cynical form of religion in the text gains its intelligibility as a critique of religion not in opposition to the enlightened humanism of a Marxist analysis, but precisely at the point that it assumes a temperate religious contrary.  That is to say, the use of religious imagery in the text subverts religion by highlighting badly ordered religious beliefs and practices, thus lampooning religion as a wellspring of violent irrationality.  Nevertheless, the highlighting of these badly ordered religious beliefs and practices presupposes that their mirror-image, rather than rational religion-less restraint, is rational, well-ordered religious beliefs and practices.  The collapse of the religion/humanism binary in The War Prayer, therefore, deconstructs the text’s overt ideological project, while at the same time it contests Marxism’s sweeping claims about the deleterious effects of religion.

This paper will challenge the Marxist argument that religion is necessarily a corrosive force, one of the goals of which is to underwrite nationalist fervor in support of acquisitive and imperialist capitalist economies.  Moreover, we will offer objection to the facile inference that the disordered religion exemplified by The War Prayer and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” are the natural outcomes of religion.  Finally, we will argue that religion differently conceived may re-narrate identity in ways that call into question the very national power arrangements underwritten by claims of providential authority.  Finally, we will suggest that a differently conceived religious identity will operate in much the same way as a Marxist critique of culture—unmasking the hidden power structures.

The Battle Hymn of the Republic

Julia Ward Howe’s abolitionist hymn, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” offers a notable use of the trope that closely identifies the work of America with the work of God.  Written in November, 1861, against the backdrop of the Civil War, this abolitionist hymn captured the imagination of the anti-slavery forces of the North.  Kent Bowman writes: “Equating the Union cause with Christ’s mission, ‘As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,’ would undoubtedly appeal to abolitionists” (209).[3]  Responding to a challenge to put words to one of the favorite tunes of the Union Army, “Old John Brown’s Body,” Julia Ward Howe penned the lyrics to the “Battle Hymn,” articulating the vision of a righteous cause that almost immediately became a Union rallying cry (Clifford 147).  In fact, Bowman offers that “the cause not only has God’s sanction, but indeed He commands that the battle be pursued” (209).

Furthermore, the song’s lyrics trade on biblical images in support of the abolitionist view that slavery is an abomination.  The use of biblical images was familiar to Julia Ward Howe.  Mary Grant, points out that Howe had a “predilection for linking Old Testament violence to contemporary events” (137).  In the appropriation of biblical images, Howe was not alone, however.  Grant reminds us that the conflation of religious and political/military aims was a commonplace of the intellectual environment of Howe’s day (137).[4]  These biblical images animate the “Battle Hymn’s” view of the sacred struggle waged by the forces of abolition, filling it with providential purpose and disclosing the imminence of an eschatologically bloody reckoning for those on the wrong side of the moral question of slavery, and, therefore, at odds with the divine will.

With a view toward this coming apocalypse, she opens the “Battle Hymn” by referring to “the glory of the coming of the Lord.”  Immediately following this announcement, biblical imagery appears: “He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored”—an obvious allusion to the trodden winepress of God’s wrath in Isaiah 63:3.  Then, recalling God’s curse in the garden, Howe warns through a Christian interpretation of Genesis 3:15 that “the Hero, born of woman” will inevitably “crush the serpent with his heel.”  Here, the “hero” of Christian interpretation—Christ—is re-imagined as the Union Army, which will crush with a heel the offending serpent (i.e., the slave-holding South).  Later in the lyrics, she calls to mind the apocalyptic metaphor of a divine reckoning yet again: “He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat, he is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat,” with its evocation of the book of Revelation: “Then the angel blew his trumpet. . . . ‘The nations raged, but your wrath has come, and the time for judging the dead . . . and for destroying those who destroy the earth.’” (Rev. 11:15-18).

Notably, Howe offers in the “Battle Hymn” an image not of the merciful and loving Christ presumably at the heart of Christianity, but the avenging God present in certain portions of the Hebrew Scriptures, who exacts justice.  The instruments of this justice are the Union Army, whose cause is righteous, whose sword is “swift,” and whose “watch-fires” are consecrated as “altars.”  On this view, war is a form of worship, in which the enemy (the serpent, slave-holding South) will be crushed to God’s ultimate glory.

Set against a landscape in which equating religious and American aims was widespread, the “Battle Hymn”—and its appropriation of biblical language to offer an interpretation of national affairs—was extraordinary, not as a departure from the typical discourse and thought patterns of its time, but as a superior distillation of a very general sentiment already present.  It is precisely this kind of uncritical appropriation of religious imagery that Mark Twain satirizes in The War Prayer.

The War Prayer

In the years following the Civil War, the feeling of America’s destiny as providential seemed only further to embed itself in the popular American consciousness.  After the triumph of the Union forces in the Civil War and the “reconstruction” of the South, America began to turn its gaze outward.  By the end of the nineteenth century, the view that placed America at the center of the divine will expanded beyond its own borders.  In this way, God’s will for saving the world through American efforts apparently now included colonizing previously independent countries, admittedly to further American interests, but also to share Christianity with those who had formerly suffered from being deprived of its benefits.  Twain was acutely aware of the implications of American imperialism fueled by a divine sense of purpose, advocating “a higher patriotism that gave no favoritism to one’s native country (Phipps 203).[5]  He found the collapsing of nationalist and imperialist aims into a broader divine plan objectionable in the extreme.

Twain wrote The War Prayer in 1905, in response to the popular support garnered by those who favored U.S. annexation of the Philippine Islands.  Coming on the heels of the Spanish-American War, U.S. presence in the Philippines was contested by a faction of Filipinos, igniting the Philippine-American war in 1898.  The conflict lasted until 1906, provoking great controversy in the U.S. over the issues of imperialism and race.  William Phipps writes that “beginning in 1899, [Twain] let his fury fly against the American aggression in the Philippines, which was a popular and religious cause among his fellow citizens” (203).

The War Prayer, a short work of fiction, was a practical expression of Twain’s “fury” in the face of American imperialism.  The story begins when a stranger enters a church worship service, which is focused on offering a divine blessing to the young troops who will be leaving the next day for the front in the Philippine-American war.  The minister, in the process of invoking God’s blessing and entreating God’s help in conquering the enemy and giving glory to those who would engage in the righteous and sacred cause, is interrupted by the stranger, who motions the minister to step aside.  The stranger then proceeds to offer a prayer designed to show the congregation the implications of invoking God’s partisanship in war.

A Marxist Critical Reading

One of the tasks Marxist literary criticism sets out for itself is the unmasking of ideologies that inhere within a society, but that are transparent to the inhabitants of the society.  In other words, a Marxist reading of the text calls attention to things that appear “normal” and “real” within a society, and names them as constructs that serve to sustain the current system (Tyson 56).  A reading of The War Prayer from a Marxist perspective reveals that war and patriotism are foregrounded thematically in the text in ways that serve the larger, overt ideological project: namely, religious ideology as foundational in valorizing other oppressive ideologies.

Twain opens The War Prayer with the declaration that “it was a time of great and exalting excitement.  The country was up in arms, the war was on, in every breast burned the holy fire of patriotism.”  He describes the country as not only inspired by war, but he also seems to imply that war defines the country (America) in ways that it cannot otherwise be defined.  The way the text begins its critique of war elicits feelings in the reader of great anticipation, feelings that suggest that war is viewed, almost without exception, as an unqualifiedly good thing, as the fulfillment of some national and “holy” destiny.  It is this national and “holy” destiny that is being preserved by the war.  His observation that “it was a glad and gracious time,” effectively uses sarcasm and irony.  The very act of describing a period in which America is at war as a “gracious time” implies that the opportunity to engage in war on behalf of the country is the result of a divine gift.  Twain paints a picture critical of a people for whom war is not a sad necessity, but an occasion that evokes gratitude.

Next, “. . . the rushing charge, the flashing sabers, the flight of the foe, the tumult, the enveloping smoke, the fierce pursuit, the surrender!—then home from the war, bronzed heroes, welcomed, adored, submerged in golden seas of glory!”  A Marxist reading of the text highlights the glorification of war as essential for masking the realities of war—both the brutality of battle, and the fact that most often those who fight in battle gain no economic advantage from their participation in the war.  That is to say, those who make war (i.e., those in positions of power, both economic and political) have a vested interest in painting war as “glorious” and “honorable,” inasmuch as glory and honor are intangible goods that cost nothing to those in power, but that act as incentives to the poor who make up the bulk of those actually fighting battles (Tyson 59).  In addition, the valorization of nationalism in war keeps the poor from ever looking up in battle to see that the people whom they are fighting share the same plight (viz., that both sides are being manipulated by the powerful to contend over resources in the name of national honor, the economic benefits of which they will never enjoy).  Those on the other side in the War also, as the stranger points out, have “patriot dead.”

To the extent that a Marxist analysis focuses on “what human beings do in God’s name [that is, in] organized religion” (Tyson 59), The War Prayer offers itself as a potentially fruitful object of study.  Inasmuch as it also seeks to unmask the hidden assumptions of the nationalist practice of American Christianity, the text invites a Marxist reading, which reveals religion as the ideology that is being overtly critiqued through Twain’s use of satire.  Clearly, the reader is meant to understand through the text that religion fuels American imperialism, glorifying war and violence in ways that make it attractive to the underclass that inevitably fights.  Twain’s views are not hidden here.

As time progressed, Mark Twain grew increasingly skeptical of Christianity and what he perceived to be its consecrated political agenda.  He contended that it was possible that a person could “be a Christian or a patriot, but he can’t legally be a Christian and a patriot—except in the usual way: one of the two with the mouth, the other with the heart” (Mark Twain and the Three R’s, 114).  He was alert to the problems inherent in the collapsing of religion and patriotism, and called for their intentional differentiation: “The prayer concealed in what I have been saying is, not that patriotism should cease and not that the talk about universal brotherhood [i.e., religion] should cease, but that the incongruous firm be dissolved and each limb of it be required to transact business by itself, for the future” (114).  Without that separation, Twain was convinced that the Christian “will have so greatly improved the effectiveness of his weapons of slaughter that all men will confess that without Christian civilization war must have remained a poor and trifling thing to the end of time” (117).

Notwithstanding Twain’s intentions, The War Prayer subverts religion (specifically, Christianity) by co-opting a practice of devotion (viz., prayer), and turning it into a battle cry.  The text satirizes the ridiculousness of an American piety that can use God and the trappings of religion in the service of, what amounts to, a capitalist endeavor.  Setting the action within a church further undermines religion by pitting Christianity against itself to make its point: religion not only fails to live up to its own professed commitments, but it also acts as a smokescreen—and ultimately a breeding ground—for nationalism and imperialism.  By so acting, Christianity becomes the opposite of what it was presumably intended to be: a force, ultimately, for reconciliation and peace.

Moreover, The War Prayer subversively employs the historically significant biblical theme of the priest versus the prophet.  The distinction in the Hebrew Scriptures between the priest, who was charged with the day-to-day religious care of the people, and the prophet (usually itinerant), who often had to speak a word from God against the established religious community’s uncritical relationship to the current economic and political power structures, again draws attention to religion’s failure to live by its own best lights.  In the case of The War Prayer irony locates “the stranger” as a prophet entering “the temple” to “turn over tables,” chastising the accommodations made by the local pastor (i.e., the priest) to an agenda external to religion’s ostensive purposes.

Indeed, the very use of scripture in this ironic way reveals the overt ideological project, which is to implicate religion as an accomplice in the maintenance of violent and oppressive political structures.  When Twain writes that “a war chapter from the Old Testament was read,” the reader is meant to recall occasions of biblical supplications to God to crush the enemy, like this one from Psalms:

May his days be few; may another seize his position.  May his children be orphans, and his wife a widow.  May his children wander about and beg; may they be driven out of the ruins they inhabit.  May the creditor seize all that he has; may the strangers plunder the fruits of his toil.  May there be no one to do him a kindness, nor anyone to pity his orphaned children.  May his posterity be cut off; may his name be blotted out in the second generation.  May the iniquity of his father be remembered before the Lord, and do not let the sin of his mother be blotted out (109:8-14).

In this way, the text suggests an inherent religious violence, without naming it explicitly.  By using the Bible’s own war imagery, religion is not caricatured, but taken at its own word.  In this case, religion, based on it own sacred texts, is shown to be a promoter of war, and thus used as an incitement to further war.

The reading of scripture is then followed by a hymn that recalls the kind of avenging imagery present in the Battle Hymn:

God the all-terrible!

Thou who ordainest,

Thunder thy clarion

and lightning thy sword! [italics in the original].[6]

The comparison between Twain’s use of a hymn lyric and the Battle Hymn, which speaks of the Lord who “hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword” is significant.  Though the two hymns begin comparably, they diverge in striking fashion.  Whereas, the Battle Hymn goes on to flesh out the picture of a God whose characteristic feature seems to be retributive and violent, the hymn employed in The War Prayer goes on to offer the plea to “give to us peace in our time, O Lord.”  Once again, Twain pictures Christianity as violent in practice, failing to live up to its claims to be peaceful.

Afterwards, the pastor gives the “long” prayer, as Twain refers to it.  This prayer implores God’s protection of the “noble young soldiers . . . in their patriotic work,” that God might “make them strong and confident, invincible in the bloody onset,” and that God would finally “help them to crush the foe, grant to them and to their flag and country imperishable honor and glory.”  The pastor finishes the prayer, entreating God, the “Father and Protector of our flag” to “bless our arms, grant us the victory.”

Complementary to Marxist literary theory’s critique of religion is its determination to unmask ideologies, wanting to reveal a society’s “blind spots.”  What we take for granted as woven into the fabric of the universe (e.g., “Work is what is central to life and the discovery of meaning; and therefore leisure should be therapeutic in preparing us to go back to work.”).  Marxist theory reveals that an economic system like capitalism needs to advance particular ideologies as unassailable truisms to feed the economic machine—but that these truisms are not simply “the way the world works.”

However, the idea that study, inquiry, criticism can define what is “real” and what is “normal” through abstractions like neutrality, is itself a political position that exerts great power, just to the extent that it remains hidden and retains an air of “realistic” inevitability.  Accordingly, as Stanley Fish observes: “The assertion of interest is always what’s going on even when, and especially when, interest wraps itself in high-sounding abstractions” (45).

The character of the stranger in The War Prayer serves precisely the function of revealing the hidden assumptions embedded within a system that casually links the interests of the nation and divine providence.  The text exposes the arrogance of a religion that asserts its peacefulness, while at the same time praying for the death of its enemies in the name of national imperial interests.  The stranger forces the congregation praying for national victory to confront the implications of so praying: “For it is like unto many of the prayers of men, in that it asks for more than he who utters it is aware of . . . .”  Shortly thereafter, the stranger once again announces his vocation as “commissioned of God to put into words the other part of it—that part which the pastor, and also you in your hearts, fervently prayed silently.  And ignorantly unthinkingly?”

In these two instances, the stranger does explicitly what Marxist literary theory intends to do: he brings to light the structures that have, to this point, remained hidden from view.  He points out the implications of the people’s prayer against their enemies; namely, these enemies have names, faces, and children.  Therefore, a prayer that pleads for the destruction of one’s enemies is not an abstract plea; it has real human consequences.  Implicit in showing what has remained masked is that, in a twist of irony, the enemy for whose destruction the people plead is at the same time praying for the destruction of their enemies.  The text presses the question that if there is only one God, which set of peoples has a greater claim on God’s generosity?  As before, religion is exposed as internally inconsistent with its own putative self-understanding.  The very people praying for the bloody destruction of the enemies are the same ones who can, in the next breath, pray without a sense of irony: “We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek his aid with humble and contrite hearts.”

Binary Opposition

A Marxist reading of the text reveals religion as the ideology that is being overtly critiqued through Twain’s use of satire.  Clearly, what the reader is supposed to understand is that religion is complicit in the national sin of imperialism.  It is important to remember here that religion is one of the ideologies that Marxism specifically seeks to expose.  Helmut Gollwitzer reminds us that, fundamental to understanding a Marxist analysis is the “decisive repudiation of everything which can conceivably be included under the title of ‘religion’” (1).  In other words, religion, which by a Marxist definition, must always—and indeed, cannot help but—underwrite the oppressive structures of a capitalist economy, is a perennial candidate for Marxist criticism.

Furthermore, it is important to bear in mind that this Marxist antagonism to religion is not the same as “the easy-going tolerance with which middle-class atheism treats religion” (Gollwitzer 5); the antagonism to religion is active, real, and a necessary aspect of Marxist ideology.  The facile appropriation of religious imagery, like that of the pastor in The War Prayer and the text of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” in the service of a nationalist and imperialist agenda is, according to a Marxist reading, an inevitable outcome of religion.  That is to say, for Marxist analysis, religious ends will always serve the ambitions of the economic structure—often in the form of an endorser of nationalist and imperialist objectives.  In fact, the inherence of this antagonism to religion within Marxism is so fundamental that it is arguable that if any lessening of this antagonism were to occur, it could be taken to be a proportional lessening of Marxism (2).  Therefore, Twain’s satire, from a Marxist perspective, reveals religion as the fire lit and enthusiastically stoked by capitalism to heat the black cauldron of nationalism, which contains within it the deadly soup of imperialism.

The implication, of course, according to a Marxist analysis, is that the antidote to all this religious violence is to replace religion with an enlightened humanism concerned to reject the consolation of religion, in favor of appropriating the resulting disaffection for the cause of the revolt and struggle necessary to establish a just economic foundation (Gollwitzer 13).  Indeed, on a Marxist reading, religion is necessarily a corrosive force, one of the goals of which is to underwrite nationalist fervor in support of acquisitiveness and imperialism in capitalist economies, which can only be countered by an enlightened religion-less humanism.  In this view, The War Prayer turns on the binary opposition between the temperance of an enlightened humanism and an intrinsically violent religion.  The overt ideological project in the text, therefore, is a privileging of rational and temperate humanism over irrational and irresponsible religion.  Read in this way, an elegant syllogistic argument emerges:

  1. Religion supports nationalism and imperialism,
    1. which, in turn, breeds a kind of enthusiastic and divinely sanctioned violence.
    2. In fact, not only is the violence enthusiastic and divinely sanctioned, its presence is an unassailable sign of faithfulness.
    3. Therefore, religion corrodes civilized society and serves as an oppressive ideology.
  2. An enlightened humanism, on the other hand, is invested in humans and not in nation-states,
    1. which, in turn, breeds a kind of measured and rationally sanctioned non-violent dialogue.
    2. In fact, not only is the dialogue measured and rationally sanctioned, it is an unassailable sign of cultivated enlightenment.
    3. Therefore, religion-less humanism fortifies society and serves as a liberatory ideology.
  3. Therefore, an enlightened and religion-less humanism ought rightly to be privileged, over against religion.

But does the conclusion necessarily follow from the premises?  Can the binary opposite exposed as the overt ideological project of the text withstand scrutiny?  It is that question to which we must turn our attention.


When examined, we see that the humanism/religion binary is a false one—just to the extent that the subversive use of a cynical form of religion in the text gains its intelligibility as a critique of religion not in opposition to the enlightened humanism of a Marxist analysis, but precisely at the point that it assumes a temperate religious contrary.  In other words, a Marxist reading suggests that the effectiveness of Twain’s satire turns on the automatic assumption by the reader that religion is necessarily a useful tool for capitalist economies—inasmuch as it collapses the religious and nationalist projects together into one identity.  The other automatic assumption that makes the satire effective is that the only alternative to religion, therefore, is a religion-less humanism.  This binary, of course, privileges rational humanism—unencumbered by the enthusiasms and abuses ostensibly inherent in religion.

The use of religious imagery in the service of nationalist projects as a trope in the text subverts religion by highlighting a badly ordered version of religious beliefs and practices.  That subversion allows for the additional trope of “religion as the preserve of buffoons,” automatically ceding the rational high ground to those who would occupy it in the name of an enlightened form of humanism.  However, the very highlighting of these badly ordered religious beliefs and practices co-opted for nationalist purposes presupposes that their binary opposite, rather than rational religion-less restraint, is a rational, well ordered expression of religion peopled by “rash spirits” capable of “venturing to disapprove” of the current political power arrangements.  Moreover, that the stranger is modeled after a biblical prophet, offers implicit approbation within the text of the notion of a person (or a community of persons) commissioned to speak as if from a “God’s eye-view,” against the nationalist and imperialist ideologies of a repressive capitalist economy.  Contrary to a religion-less reading offered by Marxism, these “rash spirits,” then, even in the face of “a stern and angry warning” with “their personal safety” at risk, are what religion at its best seeks to embody.

The overt ideological project of the text, which sets forth, through its use of satire, a binary opposition between humanism and religion deconstructs itself, therefore, when it is shown that the binary opposite of bad religion isn’t necessarily no religion, but good religion.  In effect, the use of religious imagery used poorly in the text assumes its contrary—a religion, that when practiced rightly, acts in ways opposite of those described in the text.  There is an assumed counterpart in religion differently conceived that is capable of speaking prophetically to power, rather than blithely accommodating to it.  That is to say, when what is privileged in the formulation of binary opposites in the text is the appropriate practice of religion, rather than no religion, it is possible (and arguably necessary) to re-narrate the identity of religious people occupying positions that inevitably put them at odds with the power arrangements indispensable to capitalism—in just the same ways suggested by a Marxist reading of the text.

Understood in this way, the use of religion against itself in the text can be read from the perspective of disappointment in religion’s failure to live by its own best lights, rather than as total disdain for religion.  The answer on this view, then, to disordered religious practice is rightly ordered religious practice that embodies the peace and reconciliation it presumably professes.  In that sense, then, “the half-dozen rash spirits that ventured to disapprove of the war and cast a doubt upon its righteousness” wouldn’t necessarily be the enlightened humanist, but the “reimagined” identity of the enlightened religious.


Through a comparison of the in The War Prayer and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” this paper has explored the historical American penchant for the collapsing of religious and political identity, through a conflation of their goals into a shared mission.  By an application of Marxist literary theory to the The War Prayer, we have attempted to identify and clarify the overt ideological project of the text as a critique of religion, which Marxist theory maintains is inevitably corrosive to society, through the foregrounding of war and patriotism.  Marxist analysis of the The War Prayer, as we have contended, reveals the binary opposition humanism/religion, a binary in which humanism is privileged.  In addition, we have argued that this binary opposition is a false one, deconstructing itself, in that the real binary opposite of badly ordered religion is not an enlightened religion-less humanism, but rather a religion that lives by its own best lights—one capable of providing the same kind of pointed critique of faulty and oppressive capitalist economies as Marxism.

Though some contemporary religious sectors continue to offer an account that “reimagines U.S. history” with a view to understanding political goals as divinely providential in much the same ways exemplified by “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and satirized by The War Prayer, there remains a way of narrating religious identity that empowers religious people to speak truth to power, while offering the historically religious resources necessary to those who might “venture to disapprove.”

Works Cited

Primary Sources

Twain, Mark. The War Prayer. Harper Colophon, 1970. N. pag.

---. Mark Twain and the Three R’s: Race, Religion, and Related Matters. ed. Maxwell Geismar. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1973.

Secondary Sources

Bowman, Kent. “The Muse of Fire: Liberty and War Songs as a Source of American History.” Diss. North Texas U, 1984.

Camfield, Gregg. “In the Mirror of the Imagination: Mark Twain’s Kipling.” Arizona Quarterly 61 (2005): 85-107.

Clifford, Deborah P. Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Biography of Julia Ward Howe. Boston: Little, Brown, 1979.

Fish, Stanley. The Trouble with Principle. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Gollwitzer, Helmut. The Christian Faith and the Marxist Criticism of Religion. trans. David Cairns. New York: Scribner’s, 1970.

Grant, Mary H. Private Woman, Public Person: An Account of the Life of Julia Ward Howe from 1819 to 1868. Brooklyn: Carlson, 1994.

Haslett, Moyra. Marxist Literary and Cultural Theories. New York, St. Martin’s, 2000.

“The Philippine-American War.” The American Social History Project. CUNY.

Phipps, William E. Mark Twain’s Religion. Macon: Mercer UP, 2003.

Sharlet, Jeff. “Through a Glass Darkly: How the Christian Right Is Reimagining U.S. History.” Harper’s Dec. 2006: 33-43.

Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today. New York: Routledge. 2006.

[1] This “Christianized” reading of American history is most often found among religious conservatives, whose politics also tend toward the conservative.  However, the instrumental use of religion for the purpose of realizing political ends is not limited to conservatives, religious or political.  The use of religious imagery has its own history among liberal, main-line Christians and their liberal political counterparts.  While not within the scope of this paper, it would also be possible to trace the use of religious imagery and allusion in social and political causes not usually associated with fundamentalists.  The “Social Gospel” of Walter Rauschenbusch in the early twentieth century (see especially A Theology for the Social Gospel, Library of Theological Ethics, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), the Catholic Workers Movement of Dorothy Day, or the Civil Rights advocacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. (see, for example, his Letter from the Birmingham Jail, New York: Harper Collins, 1994) are but a few such examples.

[2] All biblical references are to the New Revised Standard Version.

[3] Bowman goes on to observe wryly, “Not surprisingly, the South did not appropriate the John Brown melody into any of its liberty or patriotic songs” (209).

[4] Grant goes on to note thinkers who were contemporaries of Howe and how they interpreted America’s national struggles as providential.  She writes: “New England intellectuals of the period like Orestes Brownson, Henry James, Sr., Charles Eliot Norton, Frances Parkman, Moncure Conway, William Lloyd Garrison, and John Greenleaf Whittier were all sounding similar notes of religion, violence, justice, and retribution” (137).  She goes on to say of the thinkers in this intellectual climate that “they believed that divine energy informed the course of events and transformed ordinary individuals into instruments of God’s will” (137).

[5] Twain was not above using religious imagery for his own purposes.  Ironically, as Greg Camfield notes, “In attacking imperialism, Twain, too, used Christian rhetoric, despite his religious skepticism, to make his points” (94).

[6] Twain alters here the first line of Henry F. Chorley’s hymn, “God, Lord of Saboth, Thou Who Ordainest.”  The purpose of the alteration of “Sabaoth” to “the all-terrible,” though, seems unclear, inasmuch as both resonate with images of God as a leader of an army, The Lutheran Hymnal (St. Louis: Concordia, 1941) <>.