The American Legion Magazine
By Alan W. Dowd
There are no atheists in foxholes, as the old saying goes. So as American troops wage a global war, it should come as no surprise that the most predominant faith in America—Christianity—is influencing the troops, exposing internal divisions and triggering external challenges.
Whether or not people of faith should serve in the armed forces is a subject for another essay. Suffice it to say that David, the psalmist and king, praised God, “who trains my hands for war.” Likewise, the author of Ecclesiastes, quite likely David’s son, conceded there is “a time for war.” Centuries later, Jesus had sterner words for those who worked as scholars and scribes than he did for soldiers. In fact, when a centurion once asked him to heal an ailing servant, the Prince of Peace didn’t lecture the soldier about putting down his sword. Instead, he commended the man for his unparalleled faith.[i]
As soldier-turned-author Ralph Peters reminds us, “Throughout both testaments, we encounter violent actors and soldiers. They face timeless moral dilemmas. Interestingly, their social validity is not questioned even in the Gospels.” According to Peters, “the thrust of the texts is to improve rather than abolish the soldiery.”[ii]
Indeed, the influence of Judeo-Christian values has done much to elevate the warrior throughout the centuries—and much to shape the American military:
• Twenty years before the Declaration of Independence, Gen. George Washington had a minister detached to his regiment.[iii]
• Both sides of the Civil War were led by devout men who turned to scripture to defend their divergent causes. “Lincoln’s second inaugural address, with its profound reflection on the mysteries of providence,” as Richard John Neuhaus has observed, “is in some ways worthy of St. Augustine.” And it was the Civil War that birthed “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, which imputed messianic qualities onto the Union armies: “As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.”
• When FDR and Churchill rendezvoused in the North Atlantic, they led their troops in singing “Onward, Christian Soldiers!”
• The Cold War was often cast, rightly, as a battle between godless communists and defenders of religious freedom. President Kennedy, for example, ended his inaugural with a stirring declaration that “here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”
• And when 9/11 awoke America to a new kind of war, it was hard to differentiate the words of America’s commander-in-chief from those of America’s elder pastor: “The Lord of life holds all who die and all who mourn,” President Bush intoned. Rev. Billy Graham then steeled the nation for battle. “We say to those who masterminded this cruel plot, and to those who carried it out, that the spirit of this nation will not be defeated by their twisted and diabolical schemes,” he warned. “Some day those responsible will be brought to justice.”
Active Duty, Active Faith
That brings us back to today’s military, where Christianity—especially the more evangelical strain of Christianity—appears to be blossoming. A 2001 study found that 68 percent of US troops identify themselves as Protestant Christian, Catholic/Orthodox Christian or Other Christian. According to a 2005 analysis by National Public Radio, the Pentagon estimates that fully 40 percent of active-duty troops are evangelicals, compared with perhaps 15 percent in the general population.[iv]
Not surprisingly, the number of evangelical chaplains in the service is on the rise. The New York Times has reported Air Force statistics that show a doubling of chaplains from some evangelical faiths over the last decade. In fact, an estimated 60 percent of military chaplains are now evangelicals. And according to a Washington Post analysis, the largest contributor of chaplains to the service is the Southern Baptist Convention.[v]
One likely cause of the increased demand for evangelical chaplains is an increased supply of evangelical troops. After all, 63 percent of all recruits now come from the South or Midwest, also known as America’s “Bible Belt.”[vi]
Moreover, serving in wartime has a way of focusing the heart. “You are dealing with life and death,” according to Scott Taylor, who piloted F-15E fighter-bombers over Serbia, Iraq, Manhattan and the nation’s capital before leaving the service in 2005. “When people realize they’re not in control of what comes next, it affects how they live and what they believe.”
And those beliefs affect the military.
• In 2003, reports surfaced that Army Lt. Gen. William Boykin had credited his battlefield victories over Muslim militiamen in Somalia to his Christian god.
• In 2004, Air Force Academy cadets were reportedly encouraged to see The Passion of the Christ. That same year, the Air Force football team posted a locker-room creed that included phrases such as “I am a member of Team Jesus Christ.” In 2005, an Academy general sent emails promoting the National Day of Prayer. The Air Force has also drawn fire for sponsoring chaplains seminars geared expressly for Evangelicals. The New York Times described a program that featured workshops on The Purpose Driven Life and worship services “with a distinctively evangelical tone.”[vii] The Academy has since promulgated new guidelines to promote greater sensitivity and respect between religious groups.
• On the other end of the spectrum, dozens of evangelical Navy chaplains say that in an effort to protect the rights of non-Christians the military has muzzled them from closing prayers with “in the name of Jesus.” In response, some chaplains filed suit, claiming they have been denied promotions because of their faith. One Navy chaplain, Lt. Gordon James Klingenschmitt, even went on a hunger strike to draw attention to the issue.
It apparently worked. In its version of next year’s behemoth defense-authorization bill, the House of Representatives inserted the following: “Each chaplain shall have the prerogative to pray according to the dictates of the chaplain's own conscience, except as must be limited by military necessity, with any such limitation being imposed in the least restrictive manner feasible.”
Lines and Labels
The military tries to address these internal faith challenges by striking a balance between the believer’s right to share his or her faith and the nonbeliever’s right not to hear it. Predictably, there is division within the ranks over where that balance is found.
Gen. Cecil Richardson, the Air Force Deputy Chief of Chaplains, told The New York Times, “We will not proselytize, but we reserve the right to evangelize the un-churched.” Others say that it’s inappropriate for chaplains to use their position as spiritual counselors in this manner. As Archbishop Edwin O’Brien, who trains Catholic chaplains, told the San Diego Union Tribune, “Some evangelicals have stepped over the line.”[viii]
That blurry line is what separates proselytizing from evangelizing. And while it’s fair to say that one man’s evangelism is another’s proselytizing, there is more than a semantic difference between these two forms of spreading one’s faith: Proselytizing carries a connotation of recruiting and pressuring, whereas evangelizing carries a connotation of sharing, informing and preaching. Christians—whether on the battlefront or on the home-front—are called to follow the example set by Jesus. And it was always the latter.
To expect Christians in the military to do less than this is to ask them to disobey the Great Commission, which calls on believers to make disciples of all nations. But to allow them to do more than this, is arguably just as wrong. It pays to recall that disciple means “one who accepts” or “subscribes”—not one who submits.
According to Taylor, “The right balance is not knocking down doors to share Christ but walking through open doors.” Brian Nicholson, a veteran of the Marine Corps and Air National Guard, agrees. “I’ve never thought the best way to share the Christian message is to shove it down someone’s throat,” he says.
According to Maj. Joe Hilbert, the biggest challenge is finding the right balance with subordinates. “I have always felt comfortable sharing my faith with my COs and peers,” says the 13-year Army veteran, who has served in Germany, Kosovo and Haiti. “But you have to be careful with someone under your command. If they ask about my faith, I share. If they don’t, I try to live my faith and hope they see Christ in my life.”
Christianity inside the military also presents challenges outside the military. The Pentagon places clear limits on communicating about religion overseas, especially in Muslim nations. As Nicholson explains, “Compared to Okinawa, Thailand, South Korea and Australia, the guidelines about expressing your faith off-base were much stricter in Kuwait.”
And for good reason: Given the sad history of the crusades, Islamic nations are understandably wary of Christians in uniform. Indeed, al Qaeda and other jihadist groups seek to capitalize on this by slurring American troops as Christian crusaders.
Of course, it seems there is little the US military can do to shed that label. It pays to recall that in the last 15 years, America’s “Christian crusaders” have defended Muslim Saudi Arabia, liberated Muslim Kuwait, rescued Muslim Kurdistan, fed Muslim Somalia, ended the vivisection of Muslim Bosnia, protected Muslim Kosovo, liberated Muslim Afghanistan and Muslim Iraq from horrific regimes, and assisted Muslim Indonesia and Muslim Pakistan after natural disasters of biblical proportion. If this record doesn’t convince moderate Muslims that the US is not on a crusade against Islam, then nothing will.
As Taylor explains, “I was a Christian serving in the US military. I wasn’t serving in a Christian military.” Even so, he concedes, “Our reputation precedes us. Many countries think of the US military as Christian.” He points to his own experience in Turkey. “I was in my flight suit, getting my flight-boots shined,” he recalls. “After casting a few cautious glances, a Turkish boy asked me to explain the Trinity.”
That’s a tall order for an F-15E pilot preparing to fly the not-so-friendly skies of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, but Taylor did his best to carefully and caringly answer the boy.
Taylor’s story speaks volumes. The door was open, and a US serviceman who happened to be Christian walked through it. At some level, isn’t that what the US military is fighting for—a world of open doors, a world where people can choose any faith or no faith at all?
Respect in the World
People of faith—Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and every other shade of religion practiced in this great, secular republic—serve in the US military. And many of them see their service as a way to do the good works prescribed by their religious traditions.
Nicholson recalls how Christian members of his unit would travel to orphanages in Thailand. “When we were off-duty, we worked with local missionaries to clean up buildings, do construction, serve meals and baby-sit,” he explains.
While deployed in Haiti, Hilbert recounts how he connected with a pastor who ran an orphanage near Port-au-Prince. Along with his battalion chaplain, Hilbert gathered leftover, unopened items from his unit’s MREs and delivered the surplus foodstuffs to the orphanage every week. “One time, we had leftover chicken from a barbeque. We couldn’t store it, so we took it to the kids.”
This fishes-and-loaves story wouldn’t have happened if a Christian soldier wasn’t allowed to express his faith. In other words, to sanitize the military of the faith that animates so many of its members could have unintended consequences.
Hilbert is just one hundreds of thousands of American troops who understand that the solution to this internal-external dilemma is not to hide their light under a basket or wage personal crusades, but rather to let their actions do the talking. As author Philip Yancey observes, “Our respect in the world declines in proportion to how vigorously we attempt to force others to adopt our view.”
For evidence of this, look no further than the enemy in this war: The jihadists are fighting, quite literally, for a world where there is no faith but one.
[i] See Psalm 144:1; Ecclesiastes 3:8; Matthew 8:5-13.
[ii] Ralph Peters, “Our new old enemies,” Parameters, Summer 1999.
[iii] See Alan Cooperman, “Military wrestles with disharmony among chaplains,” Washington Post, August 30, 2005.
[iv] See David Segal and Mady W. Segal, “America’s military population,” Population Reference Bureau Bulletin, December 2004; see also Jeff Brady, “Evangelical chaplains test bounds of faith in military,” July 27, 2005.
[v] See Laurie Goodstein, “Evangelicals are growing force in the military chaplain corps,” New York Times, July 12, 2005; See Alan Cooperman, “Military wrestles with disharmony among chaplains,” Washington Post, August 30, 2005; Jeff Brady, “Evangelical chaplains test bounds of faith in the military,” http://www.npr.org/, January 31, 2006.
[vi] See David Segal and Mady W. Segal, “America’s military population,” Population Reference Bureau Bulletin, December 2004.
[vii] See Jonathan Chait, “The Air Force Academy: Aiming for theocracy,” The Los Angeles Times, May 25, 2005; Laurie Goodstein, “Evangelicals are growing force in the military chaplain corps,” New York Times, July 12, 2005.
[viii] See Deborah Porter, “Evangelicalism’s rise among military chaplains an issue,” San Diego Union Tribune, January 28, 2006.