“Religion and the
International Symposium on Military Ethics
January 25, 2007
Martin L. Cook
Professor and Deputy Department Head
Department of Philosophy
For many years, significant fractions of the philosophy
department at the Air Force Academy have headed to
I am invited to reflect on the special question of the role
of religion in the military. Nobody who’s
spent any significant time with the
I’m at the stage of life where I’m now able to look back on the “good old days.” Like everyone who reaches that stage, I’m inclined not only to remember the past a little hazily, but also to idealize it somewhat. On the other hand, it is an interesting question why religion and the military have become such major issues and so controversial in recent years.
To better focus our question (although it may not be politically correct to point this out), the source of these controversies comes from one specific quadrant of American religious life: Protestantism. We are not having controversies because Catholics are so pushy in forcing their convictions on Jews and Buddhists. Our controversies and difficulties come specifically from Evangelical Protestantism. If we are to understand the nature of those issues, therefore, we must explore what’s been shifting in the beliefs and organizations of that specific part of our religious landscape.
When I was a child growing up in the U.S. Air Force in the 50s and 60s, we were well aware of religious diversity on base. We had neighbors who were Catholics, Mormons, Jews, and Protestants. Certainly had conversations occurred about those religious beliefs there would have been disagreements, but my memory is there really were few such conversations, and they were all of the “I’d like to know more about what you believe” variety.
There seemed to be a tacit agreement that whatever else we were, we were all Air Force blue, and that religious differences that might divide us in the secular world, or in the world outside the military didn’t in any way distract from our common Air Force identity. But I suspect it reflected the mood of the times as well. I remember billboards along the highway that read “Attend the church of your choice.” The idea seemed to be that in some unspecified way church-going was a good thing for families, individuals and the society, but that the differences of theology among the various churches were relatively minor compared to those common goods.
It was also a period when Will Herberg could write a book
titled Protestant, Catholic, Jew and feel he’d comfortably covered the
religious landscape of
It would be impossible to talk about religion in the military
without also noting some fundamental changes that have occurred in the nature
of religion in American culture more broadly.
The way I experienced military religiousity as a child was of a piece
with the religious mood of the Eisenhower period. The way we experience it now is similarly of
a piece with the changed role of religion in contemporary
Let me very quickly characterize the historical roots of
American religion. As is commonly known,
the original colonists were mostly driven by strong religious conviction
(except in the South.) The core of the
colonial culture, especially in
The colonial period can accurately be characterized as a
common struggle for religious liberty.
Within that broad agreement, however, there were different ideas as to
why religious liberty was important.
Some, such as
In addition to all that, there was what modern scholars have
come to call American civil religion.
Shared by virtually all the groups I’ve mentioned, what united Americans
was a belief in
The arrival of significant number of Roman Catholics in the 1840’s and beyond challenged the de facto establishment of “generic Protestantism” as the religio-cultural glue for the society. That initiated a struggle, continuing to this day, to accommodate ever-increasing pluralism of religion and culture as it challenged unspoken shared assumptions of the Protestant establishment.
In the 19th century however American Protestantism underwent
a fairly massive evolution. The
combination of the rise of critical biblical scholarship, Darwinian evolution,
and the social challenges of the new industrial era combined to move mainstream
Protestantism into a more liberal and less dogmatic version of Protestant
theology. Its focus was increasingly on
a “social gospel” which replaced preoccupation with individual conversion and
salvation with a concern to improve the society. On the theological side, the new “Modernism”
stressed openness to new ideas and accommodation of religion with evolution and
science generally. This was occurring
precisely as the new critical scholarship of the Bible diminished still further
the idea of religion grounded in unambiguous revealed texts. In all the major denominations of
Protestantism in the
So, by my childhood, that’s where
things stood. Protestantism (and
religion generally) was felt to be a social good. “Religion” was a bastion of
Hard core evangelicalism and fundamentalism did not disappear of course, despite having lost control of the major denominations – which one could safely call “mainline” at this stage. But they were marginalized to their own small regrouped sects, their own academically weak colleges, the outer regions of the AM radio dial, and graphically marginal areas of the nation. First Methodist, First Presbyterian, Grace Lutheran comfortably occupied the town square – the Pentecostals being content with the warehouse-like boxes they constructed out on the edge of town. Further, since they were sectarian in their theology – teaching a withdrawal from the corrupt public culture – and often apocalyptic in their expectation of the imminent end of the world, their political impact was small. Many did not even bother to vote.
Obviously, a great deal has changed in the nature, theology, and role of religion – and especially Protestantism – since that period, both in the society generally and in military religiosity.
The most obvious big change has to do with the shifting role of Evangelicalism in the society. Where it had been marginalized in the 50’s and 60’s, it has now emerged as a potent factor in our public life and politics – so much so, that one is tempted to ask whether we are experiencing a third “great awakening” as we speak.
The beginnings of the change can probably be traced to the Moral Majority movement of the 1970s. Partly spurred by Supreme Court decisions that finally acknowledge that things like school prayer were indeed governmentally mandated religious practice, and partly in response to the perceived moral deterioration of the nation in the period, Evangelicals began to rethink their traditional emphasis on conversion of individuals alone. Led by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, the movement initiated a major cultural change within Evangelicalism. Explicitly political, Falwell’s movement persuaded many to abandon Evangelicalism’s traditional distaste for politics in favor of explicit endorsement of political candidates and causes and the use of churches as a base for political registration of their flocks – many of whom had not previously been registered. Since the trajectory is well-known as the movement morphed into the Christian Coalition and other manifestations, I won’t elaborate the trajectory except to indicate where it culminated: with the assumption that to be a good Evangelical was almost by definition to be a Republican.
For a couple of decades, this alliance allowed Republicans to count on the Religious Right as part of its “base.” Evangelical rhetoric is always about salvation from evil, so casting salvation in the political mode gave Republican strategists and candidates the opportunity to use social wedge issues such as gays, abortion, and even teaching of evolution as the “evil” from which politics was to rescue us to rally this element of their base.
Faith, The recent book by David Kuo, former Deputy Director of the
Faith Based Initiatives office in the Bush administration and Rev. Rick Warren’s
invitation for Barak Obama to speak at the
Needless to say, individuals who strongly hold such views can, at best, keep their thoughts to themselves. What they probably can’t do is genuinely embrace difference and diversity of opinion. In the military context, it would be natural for such individuals to think that only such beliefs could serve as an adequate basis for military service and the temptation to “share” those beliefs with subordinates “for their own good” would be strong. For example, this is the most charitable interpretation of the conduct of our former Commandant, General Weida, in continually sending religiously tinged messages to the Air Force Academy.
While all this has been going on, the “mainline” churches of Protestantism have ceased to be that – although we’ve yet to find a new word for them. Most of the historically dominant denominations which appeared to be permanently dominant in American culture in the 1950’s have declined in membership substantially – most by at least a third of their membership. Denominations in general (apart from the Southern Baptists, the Assemblies of God, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) have lost much of their influence as organizations to non-denominational mega churches built on the Willow Creek model of the Seeker Service (www.willowcreek.org). But even more important than their decline in numbers is their decline in public impact. There was a time when Liberal Theologians such as Reinhold Niebuhr were public figures of national and even international importance. One would have to look to Dr. James Dobson or, until his recent spectacular fall, Rev. Ted Haggard, for their modern equivalents.
There are some trends in Evangelicalism that are even more alarming on fundamental issues of military service in a Constitutional order. An Army colonel friend of mine gave me a book by a fellow named David Barton, who runs an organization called Wallbuilders (www.wallbuilders.org). I’m grateful he did so, since I never would have heard of him. My friend had received the book in his church, where they had also shown some of Barton’s videos to adult education classes, and to his credit we shared some other books and gained insight through dialogue about the real history. But this discussion led me to some inquiry about Barton and his organization.
Barton makes a living by producing
books, videos, and other “educational” material on issues of church and
state. Much of his activity is funded by
the Republican National Committee. He
travels and speaks to Evangelical church and parachurch organizations. His “message” is a completely bogus and
intellectually dishonest portrayal of issues of Church and State. I won’t have time to explain in detail his
methods and teachings. Barton’s sole
academic credential for his work is a BA from
According to Barton, the very idea of separation of church and state was an invention of the liberal Supreme Court of the 1960’s. Really, he says, the Founders had in mind a “Christian America,” and we need to be recalled to this founding vision. For anyone who’s done their homework on the actual history, the shoddiness of Barton’s work is quickly apparent. But my friend who gave me the book is a well-educated and sincere Evangelical Colonel – just not a scholar of American history. So, to him, this seems true (and the production values are slick indeed). My question is: what would a sincere person who believed Barton’s line think about how he or she should handle sensitive matters of religious diversity in his or her command? How would he react to a JAG telling him he needed to be cautious about apparent endorsement of his own beliefs or use of his authority to promote them?
Let me be clear. Obviously, individuals are entitled to their
own religious beliefs, whatever they are.
But religious individuals bound by an oath to the Constitution of the
This helps explain something weird I noted as our religious respect controversy played out at the Academy. While clearly Evangelicals were in the majority there, and pretty much dominated the culture, somehow they sincerely believed they were being persecuted as questions were being raised about the public expression of their beliefs. This culture of victimhood makes sense, however, if you’ve been fed a diet of Barton like conspiracy theories which suggest that the actual rules not just “what the law says,” but are instead the product of a nefarious conspiracy, designed to keep the truth suppressed. My colleagues Fitzke and Letendre have written an excellent paper spelling out with precision what those rules are and where there are areas of genuine uncertainty. Those of you who were not able to attend the paper will profit from taking the time to read it online, where it is already available.
still more dangerous movement in the Evangelical world is called Christian
Reconstructionism. It takes the standard
Evangelical themes that the world is going to hell in a handbasket and cries
out for salvation to offer its own prescription: the use of the Biblical
worldview and Biblical law as the basis of
I’m not suggesting that most people who would organize or attend such an event are prepared to advocate the replacement of the US Constitution with a Biblical form of government. But I am suggesting that someone who reads literature in this area and attends conferences along these lines is going to get a dose of such thinking. To my mind, someone who begins to be persuaded of this line of thinking is questionable in their ability to sincerely pledge obedience to the Constitution.
Another change that seems to be to color this whole issue in the contemporary military is the change in the composition of the Protestant chaplaincy. When I first reengaged military culture in 1991 as a visiting professor at the Air Force Academy, I was immediately struck by the change in the religious culture of the Air Force. As I began to ask around, I noticed that the chaplains were not of the same sort I remembered. For example, the senior Academy chaplain had been ordained by something called “The Gospel Lighthouse” – a sect so small I had to do significant research just to find out what it was!
As a mere visiting professor, I
just noted the change and also the frequency of overt religious language in the
culture as a curiosity. The impression
was reinforced by another tour as a visiting professor. But it was only when I joined the permanent
faculty at the US Army War College that I began to gain some real insight. My officemate for most of my time at the
The book was Anne C. Loveland’s American Evangelicals and the
The net effect of these trends is to produce a Protestant chaplaincy emerging from the less-ecumenical, less liberal traditions of Protestantism. Through no fault of their own, such individuals may be more deeply identified with their denominationally distinctive doctrines and practices and perhaps less comfortable seeing their role as ministering to the spiritual needs of a diverse military clientele. I would observe, however, that regardless of denominational point of origin, chaplains who serve long enough to reach the more senior ranks seem to grow in their breadth and sense of ministry to all.
I’d like to conclude my remarks this evening with a few constructive suggestions about what we should do and not do to make some progress on this much-vexed question.
First, some things we should not do
or should stop doing. We should stop
using “spirituality” as the word for any component of officer development.
Second, we’ve got to stop tolerating clearly over-the-line conduct. Every time a General Boykin is allowed to show up in uniform in churches and make ill-advised comments without censure, we continue the confusion about what’s appropriate. Every time a general officer’s overt advocacy of specific religious convictions is given only the most perfunctory investigation, we repeat the same mistake. And when a former acting Secretary of the Air Force and numerous general officers appear in a video endorsing The Christian Embassy without significant consequence, how can we hope the average officer will get the message clearly? I would add that that very Acting Secretary was the one charged to investigate USAFA’s religious sensitivity issues – a fact that surely raises a skeptical reaction in any fair-minded observer.
So what should we do? Two major things, it seems to me. I have discovered in recent years that USAFA
cadets (and many officers) have only the dimmest notions of what the Constitution
really says and what the issues were at the Founding. We need to do a better job helping our cadets
and officers gain a genuine appreciation of the moral and political audacity
and brilliance of our Founders’ confidence that the state could function
without explicit religious grounding. It
was, after all, the first time a predominately Christian country had even
considered the possibility since
The second thing we have to do is frame the conversation rightly. As I indicated above, many officers I heard speak after our religious sensitivity scandal broke adopted the rhetorical posture of victim of persecution and focused on pushing as far as possible in the direction of their personal freedom of religious expression. This seems to me exactly, perfectly and absolutely the wrong way to think about the matter.
In its place, I would argue we need to address questions of diversity, religious and otherwise, in a way that’s integral to our treatment of leadership. The issue is not the right of self-expression of the leader – the issue is the proper subordination of anything personal to the requirements for effective leadership. Put that way, it should be obvious to anyone qualified to be a leader that the fundamental issue of leadership is teambuilding and inclusion of all members of the unit as unquestionable equal members of a team. If we can approach the issue that way, it becomes obvious that anything a leader or a group might do that is unnecessarily divisive is contrary to effective leadership. I’m obviously not suggesting that everyithing leaders do will be popular or that they shouldn’t make decisions that are necessary to mission accomplishment, regardless of the feelings of subordinates. I am arguing, however, that the “lens” to be used here it doing everything possible to maintain unit cohesion and team-spirit and that expressions of personal religious opinions, no matter how sincerely held, are inappropriate if they undermine those core values of leadership.
The last word, however, must be the harshest. There are some religious convictions that, no matter how sincerely held, are probably incompatible with military service – or at least with leadership in military service. I had a cadet in class who once said to me, “I’m a Christian, and I believe witnessing to Christ is the most important thing I need to do in my life.” My response to her is the response I’d give to any officer who held similar views. I said, “I certainly respect your convictions. But if you sincerely mean that, I wonder whether you’re wearing the right kind of clothes. Why don’t you lose the uniform and pursue your vocation as an evangelist?”
In other words, it is one thing to understand one’s military service as a self-sacrificial calling of service to one’s neighbors. It is something else entirely to see one’s military service as a bully pulpit from which to proselytize one’s subordinates. If we’re not consistent and clear about that, we put at risk the very heart of the American experiment.