“Religion and the US Military”


After-Dinner Address

International Symposium on Military Ethics

Springfield, VA

January 25, 2007


Martin L. Cook

Professor and Deputy Department Head

Department of Philosophy

US Air Force Academy

2354 Fairchild Dr.

USAFA, CO 80840


(719) 333-8664


For many years, significant fractions of the philosophy department at the Air Force Academy have headed to Springfield in January to attend JSCOPE.  So I was surprised when I received an invitation to speak at something called “ISME” from Dr. George Lucas this January.  Google to the rescue, as always.  I quickly determined that I was to give the after dinner speech at the International Society for Mangrove Ecosystems.  My experience with mangroves is entirely limited to once spending an evening drinking in a bar in a mangrove swamp.  This occurred while I was on a sailing trip in the Caribbean with Dr. Lucas.   But I honestly that Dr. Lucas would really want me to reminensce about that occasion in public!  It came as great relief, therefore, when I discovered that ISME was, after all, still JSCOPE by another name.


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 US military can fail to note the importance – one is tempted to say, the pervasiveness – of religious language and activity in the modern military.


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 America.  The Protestant chapels I attended were staffed by the chaplains from Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian backgrounds.  We could certainly tell when Chaplain Shade, the Lutheran, was responsible for the service because it had a slightly more liturgical flare than when the Baptist was responsible for it.  But those differences were minor, adding at most a slight tinge of confessional specificity to the broad generic Protestantism that was the Air Force Chapel of that period.  Clearly, something has changed in modern American Protestantism and in the military chaplaincy.


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 US culture and politics.


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 New England, was strongly Protestant, largely Calvinist, and focused on religious purity.  Very quickly, however, American Protestantism began to take on a unique character.  Beginning with the great awakenings of the late 1700 and early 1800s, American Protestantism evolved its own unique style.  Broadly, one could characterize that style as evangelicalism.  What distinguished the new evangelicalism from the older European roots of American Protestantism was its lack of focus on doctrine in favor of its focus on religious experience and personal conversion.  Very quickly it became apparent that those groups willing to engage in evangelical activity focused on personal conversion were going to overtake the older, slightly more staid, doctrinally and liturgically focused traditions.  Where Congregationalists and Presbyterians had once dominated, quickly Baptists and Methodists set the style for what would be the future of American religion.


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 Massachusetts Bay, were mostly concerned with religious liberty for themselves.  One might call this the intolerant version of religious liberty: liberty for us!  Other colonies (especially Rhode Island and Pennsylvania) were committed to absolute religious liberty for all from the very outset.  Such tolerant attitudes earned Rhode Island the august title (from Massachusetts) of “the sewer of New England.”  For the intellectuals of the period, however, the reasons for religious liberty were neither of these.  Most intellectuals had absorbed an enlightenment suspicion of revealed religion generally in favor of “natural religion”.  Their attitude was largely influenced by Newtonian physics which described a world of perfect order and harmony governed by natural law.  While people like Jefferson and Madison acknowledged a god, it was hardly the God of the Bible.  As the poet Alexander Pope put it “God and nature’s God lay hid in night and God said, “Let Newton be!”, and all was light.”


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 America as God’s “New Israel.”  In that civic religion, traced so masterfully by Conrad Cherry’s collection of texts entitled “God’s New Israel,” America recapitulated the story of Israel’s wandering the desert and arrival in the promised land.  Like ancient Israel, America was called to be the “light to the nations” and to share her blessings of liberty with all other nations.  So intertwined was this theology of American exceptionalism with almost all other forms of American religiosity, that it requires some reflection to realize that it is not self-evidently a part of the Christian creed.


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 United States, this led to some form of massive intra-denominational fighting, culminating in every case with the victory by the modernists over the fundamentalists.


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 America against “godless communism,” and Congress could engage in symbolic acts such as putting “in God we trust” on the currency and inserting “under God” into the pledge of allegiance without many feeling as if anything terribly confessional was going on.


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.


Tempting 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 Saddleback Church, may be an indication that this lock-step arrangement may at last be coming under question from the religious side.  But while it has reigned, political disagreement was necessarily cast in highly moralistic and religiously informed rigidity.  Individuals deeply in the movement would necessarily have difficultly avoiding thinking a) that all right-thinking individuals are Evangelical, Republican and b) that anyone who held different views was not merely politically mistaken but religiously benighted and not to be trusted. 


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 Oral Roberts University.  He has admitted, for example, that a number of the “quotes” from the Founders he uses to support his claims were entirely made up by him – when they’re not, more typically, simply used completely out of context.


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 United States are not entitled to think they get to determine what the Constitution means according to their own religiously-informed lights.  Not to put too fine a point on it: what the Consitution means today is what the Supreme Court says it does – not what the David Bartons of the world would prefer it means.  Respect for individuals’ sincere religious convictions does not extend to their individual right to determine what loyalty to the Constitution means in these areas.


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.


Another 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 US government.  The goal is stunning.  Reconstructionist theologian David Chilton succinctly describes this view: “The Christian goal for the world is the universal development of Biblical theocratic republics, in which every area of life is redeemed and placed under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the rule of God’s law.”  Just last week, flyers at every elevator at the Academy announced a talk to be given over the lunch hour on the “Biblical Worldview” which should inform such thinking, to be offered by a staff member of Focus on the Family.  The event was sponsored by the Evangelical community of faculty at the Academy.


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 War College was the chaplain on the faculty.  In particular, the first was John Brinsfield, the preeminent historian of the Army chaplaincy.  We had many long conversations on the evolution of the chaplaincy and he directed me to a book which explained a great deal to me.


The book was Anne C. Loveland’s American Evangelicals and the U.S. Military 1942-1993 (Baton Rouge: Louisana State University Press, 1996).  The book is rich in historical detail, but the story it tells can be reduced to a pretty simple narrative.  Essentially, she argues the current shape of the Protestant chaplaincy results from two trends.  On the one hand, Evangelicals emerged from WWII feeling (largely rightly) disproportionately underrepresented in the chaplaincy and set out (with the help of a number of high ranking officers she names by name) to redress that balance – a move at which they have been very successful.  On the other hand, the identification of the mainline churches with liberal causes in the 1960’s and beyond (Civil Rights, Urban renewal, etc.) also fed into an anti-Vietnam War stance which made fewer of their clergy interested in serving as chaplains.


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.  West Point’s decision to continue to use it is, in my opinion, ill-advised in the extreme.  When West Point folks explain what they mean by it, what they say is perfectly reasonable.  They assure us it really means something like “a reflective self-concept” that each cadet should be encouraged to develop.  In other words, it’s important to encourage them to explore who they really are as individuals and to think about how military service coheres with that concept.  Fair enough – and clearly important.  But if that’s true, what’s gained by calling it “spirituality” – especially in a climate where we know many of our officers and leaders are looking for the loophole through which to insert their own personal religious convictions into their official communications?  Nothing, it seems to me.  I don’t mean to attribute motives that may not be there, but if the same conversation were coming from USAFA, I am certain that wish would in fact be at work in the minds of some advocates of the terminology.


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 Constantine.  It is a testament to the depth and profundity of the Founders’ vision that when, after the Civil War, there was a serious move to amend the Constitution to add explicit acknowledgement of God (coming from the belief that that neglect in the Constitution had been punished by the civil war), even a century after the founding our leaders understood that commitment clearly enough to beat back the initiative.


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.