I recently wrote a piece for The American Conservative (TAC) website describing how evangelical Christianity is becoming a force to be reckoned with within the military and outlining what the downside of such a development might be, including the growing acceptance of wars and war crimes because they are somehow God’s will. I cited instances of senior officers, including Generals William Boykin and David Petraeus, who openly encouraged prayer breakfasts and Bible study among their staffs to develop “spirituality,” which they then incorporated into their warrior ethos. I also described attempts being made by soldiers in places like Afghanistan and also at the service academies to proselytize. I anticipated that the article, which was entitled “Old Testament Warriors” by the TAC editorial staff, would produce a negative response from some of the many self-described devout Christians who frequent the site. I was not disappointed, with comments ranging from the dismissive to the insulting, calling me, for example, a “whiny Vietnam vet also infused with today’s mainstream culture,” a “hack,” a “leftist,” a “B.S. merchant,” an “idiot,” and even “anti-Catholic.” Eventually, however, most of the 100+ comments were favorable and many even strongly supportive.
As I consider the issue to be important, possibly even critically so, I took another look at the piece in light of the comments and decided that it should be revisited, mostly in terms of the additional observations made by readers. First I might mention some areas in the original article that I perhaps failed to make clear enough. I was not implying that the military is overrun with out of control evangelicals or anything like that. My article’s sub-headline “Zealotry runs rampant in the US military…” was written by an editor, not by me. Evangelicals are still a minority and possibly even a small minority of all active duty military personnel and comments from some service members that they had never encountered a proselytizing officer or an inappropriately behaving chaplain are most certainly correct, though there were also comments saying the opposite. One reader noted that most senior officers are not fundamentalist – they just are louder and more noticeable when they do go off the reservation. Nor was I implying that anyone who holds strong Christian beliefs is automatically suspect or should conceal those beliefs under a bushel. Freedom to practice religion is as fundamental as the right not to do so.
Another point that I did not satisfactorily address is the tendency among American elites, mostly in the media and among the political and punditry classes, to encourage religiosity among the soldiery because it mitigates possible internal criticism of foreign and security policies in general. One comment noted that “the sword of God is a very useful weapon” because no one wants to die to defend “free markets.” This development might well be part and parcel of a developing warrior culture, which deepens the divide between soldier and civilian, and is driven by its own imperatives. One reader opined that a professional army “inevitably becomes counter to a republican form of government.”
For me the issue is simple and actually quite practical. A soldier swears an oath to the Constitution of the United States. If he believes that his loyalty to the tenets of a particular religion or to whatever God he believes in supersedes his obligation to his country he should be up front about that and not be a soldier because a soldier must protect all the citizenry as a servant of the constitution, not as a servant of God. If he cannot or will not make that distinction he should instead choose a different profession. Several commenters objected to that view, arguing that soldiers are always subject to a “higher law” in that they must refuse to participate in actions that are immoral or criminal. I agree, but there is a huge difference between personally behaving ethically and promoting a particular religious viewpoint in a hierarchical organization where an individual’s success is very much dependent on the approval of a superior. Or, in a worst case, empowering someone who desires to be raptured to heaven as soon as possible to make decisions on war and peace.
One commenter, a self-described Christian fundamentalist, also noted that there is an intrinsic problem that derives from fabricating a “Christian” justification for engaging in unjust wars, which has been the norm since 9/11. Another reader noted that accepting a non-historical narrative on faith makes it easier to apply a similar process in accepting “without question the lies and double standards associated with the war on terror.” One commenter astutely added that an aggressive nation craves sanction from a higher power or morality to justify its crimes, which tends to translate into holy war on the political right and progressive nation building or “responsibility to protect” on the left. Motivating soldiers to fight in wars that do not actually defend the United States has required a subtle shift away from secular patriotism towards a quasi-religious or moralistically based substitute.
Religious (or other) personal belief is not an appropriate yardstick for measuring the performance of any soldier, and I might add that standard should also apply to any government employee. That is not to say that a soldier or a bureaucrat should not be ethical or moral but ethics and morality are not necessarily linked to religion and should not be defined in those terms. Any soldier who witnesses a criminal or immoral act has the responsibility to report the same to the appropriate authorities in his chain of command, but one’s religiosity or lack thereof is not necessarily part of the process.
All of the above obviously does not apply to most Americans, who generally regard their religion as a private matter, but it does most definitely relate to some evangelical Christians and even more particularly to the so-called “dispensationalists” who believe in a particular form of Christianity that is so rigorous in its practical application that it sometimes advances the viewpoint that others who do not share the same beliefs are sinners or even evil. There is frequently preoccupation with the Second Coming of Christ, which many adherents believe is imminent. As part of their belief, many dispensationalists think that the gathering in of the Jews into Israel is a precursor event, so the desire to bring about the Second Coming has obvious real world consequences in terms of US foreign policy. There may be as many as 40 million dispensationalists in the United States, many of whom also have been described as Christian Zionists.
Many fundamentalist Christians also accept that the Second Coming will be preceded by a clash of civilizations type war in the Middle East in which all non-believers, including Jews who haven’t converted, will be killed. One comment noted how religious zealotry and war promotion come together with the “flag waving militarism” promoted by groups like John Hagee’s Cornerstone megachurch in San Antonio, a ministry that has 20,000 local adherents and a television and radio audience measuring in the tens of millions. Hagee’s Christians United for Israel claims a membership of 426,000. Fundamentalists who believe that helping to bring about the Second Coming is the most important thing they can accomplish in their lifetimes are sometimes referred to as Armageddonists, derived from the name of the great battle prophesied in the Book of Revelation that will precede the Second Coming. One commenter asked if a general who eagerly awaits Armageddon is called upon by the White House to give advice on a national security issue what kind of advice will he give?
A soldier should rightly be judged on his or her ability to do the job, not for how he or she spends a Sunday morning or whether he or she has attended a prayer breakfast and Bible study with Generals Boykin and Petraeus. But several commenters noted how a little faith can be a good thing. A soldier fighting in a senseless war and possibly being killed might well do so more effectively if he believes in an afterlife, though someone also quoted Vietnam vet Tim O’Brien’s observation that “A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior…” Another comment noted that while it may be true that religious soldiers perform better, senior officers in the field who make too much of their religiosity turn an overseas conflict into a holy war ipso facto, a war that we will ultimately lose.
Regarding the role of military chaplains, one reader noted that historically they have little to do with actually following Jesus and more to do with taking a shell shocked soldier and convincing him to pick up his rifle and return to the fray. True Christians are more likely to be pacifists “because they really do take Jesus seriously,” or as another reader put it, “I’ve always wondered about the illogic of religion that teaches the people of every nation to render unto their Caesar the lives of the other Caesar’s people.” Andrew Sullivan makes a distinction between actual Christians and what he calls “Christianists,” followers of an ideology rather than a faith.
Kelley Vlahos has recently written an interesting article on corruption in the military and, at first glance, corruption and a growing overt religiosity would not seem to go together. But she also opines that the post 9/11 generation of officers is actually only thinly inspired by principles and is largely motivated by careerism, as the would-be flag officers compete for fewer senior positions while the armed forces shrink in size. Meanwhile, the concept of the military as an elite society unto itself that makes its own rules has been growing, of which the evangelical religiosity, which frequently conflates war with God’s will, might be considered a subset. The overt religiosity and Bible study sessions promoted by General David Petraeus did not restrain him from entering into an extra-marital affair, which rather suggests that there is more than a touch of hypocrisy regarding how our officer caste self-identifies. And the fact that 85% of Petraeus’s staff in Afghanistan joined him in Bible study is perhaps better explained by careerism than by any genuine religious fervor. In today’s army, you follow the leader if you want to get promoted and what he does you do.
Finally, I can’t help but be amused by the one commenter’s quoting of Edward Gibbon, from his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: “The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful.” Maybe America’s overt religious fervor is more useful than genuine, but in the end utility did not save Rome. It is certainly an interesting observation.