Birth of the Christian Soldier: How Evangelicals Infiltrated the American Military
By Michael L. Weinstein and David Seay, Thomas Dunne Books
Posted on April 21, 2007, Printed on April 21, 2007
The following is an excerpt from With God On Our Side: One Man's War Against an Evangelical Coup in America's Military by Michael L. Weinstein and Davin Seay (Thomas Dunne, 2007).
Despite the church-state scandals that have plagued the US military in recent years, religious practice in the armed forces is hardly a new phenomenon. In the 1846 Mexican War, Roman Catholics were incorporated into the hitherto all-Protestant chaplaincy for the first time, as much to blunt implications of a sectarian war with Catholic Mexico as for any effort to address the actual religious demographics of the fighting force.
In 1862, President Lincoln, at the request of the Board of Delegates of American Israelites, struck the word Christian from all regulations relating to the chaplaincy appointments, and during World War II, Greek Orthodox chaplains were allowed to minister to their flock in uniform for the first time. The Buddhist Churches of America were registered as an official endorsing agency for the first time in 1987, and six years later the Army saw its first Muslim chaplain.
These earnest attempts at pluralism were often contrasted with unsanctioned attempts to bring sanctity to the armed forces, from the revivalist fervor that swept both Union and Confederate camps during the Civil War, to various hectoring attempts to stiffen the moral fiber of troops during and immediately after World War II. GIs were returning from combat, according to a 1946 report from the Veterans of Foreign Wars, "physical, mental, moral and social wrecks, having been infected with venereal disease" and "coddled by a complacent service attitude which encourages promiscuity."
The situation was subsequently exacerbated at the dawn of the Cold War when, in 1945, President Truman proposed a one-year program of universal military training for all males over eighteen, a move vigorously resisted by evangelical churches. "We began to wonder what might happen to our youth removed from home and church influences," fretted the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), "and subjected to the temptations for which military training camps are notorious."
The proliferating paranoia of the Red Scare, however, radically altered such attitudes by the early fifties, when the world, according to literature distributed by the Nazarene Service Men's Commission, was neatly divided between "the Communist dictatorships and the Christian democracies." The Nazarenes concluded, "The stricken nations are looking to the free world ... we are our 'brother's keeper.'"
Aside from being a bulwark against godless communism, the military was perceived as a target-rich environment for missionary outreach. In 1959, the NAE asserted, "Fifty percent of all who pass through the military service have no religious background or church connection." The implication was clear. "This is the ripe harvest field in which our chaplains are working."
They weren't the only ones intent on reaping the souls of unsuspecting soldiers. Early in the decade, mainline Protestant denominations aggressively promoted annual "preaching missions" on U.S. military bases, and in 1952, the year the campaign was initiated, nearly a hundred weeklong events were launched around the theme "Christ Is the Answer."
Competition between liberal Protestantism and fundamentalist evangelicals for influence within the military was fierce, focused primarily on inserting as many chaplains as possible into all available postings. A battle quickly shaped up between the rival commissioning arms of various denominations, with the evangelicals fighting on two fronts against both mainline Protestants and Catholics. "Evangelicals must not fail the proportionately large number of men in the armed forces who are anxious that the New Testament gospel be preached," warned the NAE. "... Real evangelistic work must be carried on by our chaplains."
Evangelicals were also at the forefront of what author Anne C. Loveland in her pioneering study, American Evangelicals and the U.S. Military, 1942-1993, calls "an unprecedented religious and moral welfare program" instituted by the Truman administration, largely in response to a widespread outcry against drunkenness and immorality among Korean War conscripts. Dubbed Character Guidance, the program was in force throughout the fifties, and while ostensibly nonsectarian, the curriculum reveals a rigorous religious agenda, bristling with exhortations that "service to the nation is most effective only when religion becomes part of individual life," and that in the "covenant nation" of America, "public institutions and official thinking reflect a faith in the existence and importance of divine providence," with God as "the final source of authority."
The most effective wedge for the insertion of evangelicals into every rung of military life was the NAE and its influential chaplain-endorsing agency, the Commission on Chaplains, which worked tirelessly as a liaison for a wide array of fundamentalist denominations, from the Assemblies of God to the Southern Baptist Convention to the full index of offshoot and splinter congregations. Notwithstanding the military's policy of allotting chaplaincies on a quota system designed to roughly reflect the religious affiliations of society as a whole, by the late '60s evangelical denominations were regularly exceeding their allotments.
The phenomenon mirrored, in part, the explosive growth of fundamentalist Christianity in America and, in part, the assiduous efforts of the NAE and its Commission on Chaplains to fill posts left empty by the Catholics, Jews, Orthodox, and others who were regularly failing to meet their allocations. In what Loveland terms a "quota juggling act," the NAE and others aggressively lobbied to fill chaplaincies left vacant by other denominations, resulting in a marked shift in the selection process weighted more and more to religious demographics within the military itself, where evangelical numbers continued to swell. This consolidation of power would result, by the late eighties, in the NAE Chaplains Commission's acting as the endorsing agent not only for established denominations but for hundreds of nonaligned individual churches.
By the mid sixties nearly all the forty evangelical denominations listed by the Armed Forces Chaplains Board had met or exceeded their assigned postings. This influx of evangelizing chaplains would have an extraordinary effect on the spiritual tenor of the armed forces, especially in the wake of such mandatory programs as Character Guidance, which had imbued chaplains with hitherto unimagined authority. Loveland cites a glowing article in a 1952 issue of Chaplain, the official publication of the Navy Chaplaincy, that focuses on religious instruction at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center, where recruits regularly attended lectures designed to "reinforce the moral and spiritual strength of Navy men during the most impressionable period of their Naval career."
The "thorough, dynamic program of evangelism," concluded the story, presented "a vital religion that may never have been available to them in civilian life." "Faith," another article in Chaplain asserted, "is an integral part of being a good solider," and it was to that end that chaplains were provided extensive contact and increased influence at every level of the military hierarchy.
Career considerations were another contributing factor to the flood of evangelicals into the chaplaincy. "Pastors are taking a new look at their military counterparts," wrote one observer, "and a significant number are leaving their civilian pastorate for service as a chaplain." The subsequent rush by pastors into the armed forces was hardly surprising, considering the steady paycheck, generous benefits, and comfortable pensions provided by the government.
But it wasn't only individuals who were taking a "new look" at the military mission field. Evangelical church support organizations began to bring their considerable proselytizing prowess to bear on the armed services, spearheaded by such entrenched outreaches as the Colorado Springs-based Navigators, the Officer's Christian Fellowship, the Overseas Christian Servicemen's Centers, the Christian Military Fellowship, Campus Crusade for Christ, and the Full Gospel Businessmen.
As the most established among them, the Navigators had, by the mid eighties, a staff of over seventy dedicated solely to missionary work within the military, operating active chapters in and around far-flung bases from Turkey to West Germany to Spain. In the literature of their Military Ministry branch, the Navigators singled out the Air Force Academy for special attention with an ominous-sounding (if syntactically muddled) goal to "impact eternity by multiplying disciples through spiritual generations."
It was inevitable, considering the concerted effort by evangelicals to penetrate every echelon of the service, from the lowliest barracks to the loftiest policy-making aerie, that there would eventually emerge a cadre of Christian officers emboldened to openly profess their faith and use the full influence of their rank to bolster the cause.
Among them were such high-profile figures as Army general William Harrison, dubbed the Two Star Evangelist by the press in recognition of his status as one of the nation's first bona fide born-again celebrities. While he worked at the Pentagon in the early 1950s, Harrison's exhortations could regularly be heard on the Word of Life radio program, sponsored by the Officer's Christian Union, an organization he would later head. Steadfastly promoting an end-time doctrine, Harrison, while still in uniform, declared, "The second advent of Christ will include great wars with terrible suffering," a leading indicator that "the course of civilization is toward self-destruction." It was, to say the least, a peculiar conviction from a man sworn to uphold the peace and preserve civilization.
Another front-and-center fundamentalist was John C. Broger, whose more than two decades at the helm of Armed Forces Information and education (AFIE) from 1961 to 1984 provided him, according to Anne Loveland, "a central role in the ideological indoctrination of armed forces personnel." A former radio evangelist, Broger was hired by the Defense Department at the height of the Cold War to provide what his mentor, Admiral Arthur Radford, called "Spiritual stiffening" of the troops in their battle against atheistic communism. Broger's view of that battle was quickly made clear: it was a fight that could not be won on the basis of "military manpower and production potential" alone.
What was needed was "godly precepts and principles," and "strength and inspiration in godly righteousness." To that end he created the Militant Liberty program, consisting of what some observers at the time dismissed as "pseudo-scientific jargon and high-sounding clichés." It was nevertheless relentlessly promoted by the Defense Department, with Broger delivering briefings on its provocative precepts to war colleges and service schools around the country. The eventual refusal of the Pentagon to fully implement Militant Liberty hardly slowed the peripatetic evangelist's military career track: he was subsequently appointed director of AFIE, from which perch he delivered such pronouncements as "If the government is to be ordained of God, then spiritual and moral concepts must under-gird and relate to all political, economic, educational and cultural areas of national life."
Yet of all the emergent Christian cold warriors in the years before and during the Vietnam War, none wielded more influence and authority than Army general Harold Johnson. A survivor of the Bataan Death March and a Korean War combat veteran, Johnson was appointed Army chief of staff in 1964, four years after he had declared in an interview for the American Tract Society that "Christianity is the very foundation of military leadership." The four-star general would regularly deliver addresses with titles such as "Turn to God," proclaiming, "There is a special need for the soldier to understand the strength and purpose that can be provided by a deep and abiding faith in our Father through His son, Jesus." Only Christ, according to Johnson, could provide "the inner strength that is essential to meet the wide variety of conditions encountered in the environment of the warrior."
Johnson, in fact, considered the "environment of the warrior" to be his unique purview, as witnessed by his efforts to protect and preserve the explicitly Christian content of the Character Guidance program, in place since the end of World War II. In 1962, the American Civil Liberties Union had first lodged a complaint about the "religious indoctrination" inherent in the curriculum and succeeded in removing some of its more egregious First Amendment violations, such as the "One Nation Under God" lesson plan, with its stated objective of "leading the individual to a recognition of the importance of the spiritual element in his training."
Six years later, under Johnson's watch, Character Guidance once again came under attack from the ACLU, and the Army chief of staff took personal charge of the Pentagon's response. According to historian Anne Loveland, Johnson "saw nothing wrong with using the Bible in support of the program," and, more significantly, took a staunch stand in opposition to many mainline denominations, united in their criticism of the program's coercive character. Suffice it to say, Johnson at the same time aligned himself resolutely with the evangelical political forces, still smarting from recent Supreme Court decisions banning school prayer and for whom the attack on Character Guidance was another attempt to excise God from every social sphere.
The cumulative effect of men like Harrison, Broger, and Johnson on the prevailing military mind-set was ultimately to move evangelicals from the fringes of America's fighting forces squarely into the councils of power. Yet, for all their personal charisma and crusading zeal, it was implacable historical forces that best served to consolidate fundamentalist influence within the armed services. "It was Vietnam," remarks Anne Loveland, "which really turned the tide.
As the war progressed, more and more mainline denominations spoke out against it and, in fact, became centers of organized resistance. That never really happened with evangelicals." Perhaps largely due to their stark view of human events as a titanic struggle between the forces of good and evil, evangelicals often subscribed to official rationales of the war as a necessary stand against the domino-tipping strategies of a godless opponent.
Fundamentalist John Rice, editor of the fire-breathing Sword of the Lord, neatly summed up the bellicose attitude when he wrote that, in Vietnam, America was "carrying out the command of God." The sentiment was echoed by preacher Carl McIntire, who thundered, "It is the message of the infallible Bible that gives men the right to participate in such conflicts, and to do it with the realization that God is for them, that God will help them, and that if they believe in the Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, and die in the field of battle, they will be received into the highest heaven."
As the war continued to grind away at American conscience and consensus and the military increasingly became the object of the swelling antiwar movement's fury, a siege mentality took hold. In the us-against-them polarization that was splitting the nation, the armed services looked within itself to single out and promote those who would wholeheartedly support the savagely decisive conflict, and none were more vociferously vocal in their allegiance than the evangelicals, who had spent much of the last two decades securing positions within the ranks. "Should a follower of Jesus participate at all in the messy military business of killing people?" asked evangelical author Randolph Klassen. "Would Jesus? Would Christ carry a draft card? I am convinced He would. Does He want me to carry one? Of this I have no doubt."
But there was more at play than simple knee-jerk jingoism or even evangelical opportunism. Setting aside for a moment the fatalistic complexities of premillennial theology -- in which Christ's return is delayed until man's cup of iniquity is filled to overflowing, and the death and destruction of war becomes a precursor to paradise -- the interface of the military's historical identity and fundamentalist Christian rhetoric reaches much deeper.
The Bible, of course, is rife with martial imagery, from the scorched-earth conquest of Canaan, to David's stalwart stand against Goliath, to Paul's familiar Ephesians metaphors for the well-equipped Christian: "the breastplate of righteousness," "the shield of faith," "the helmet of salvation," and "the sword of the Spirit."
Together they comprised "the whole armor of God," in which believers would sally forth to do battle against "the rulers of darkness of this world and against spiritual wickedness in high places." The Church Militant has been one of Christianity's most resonant and effective self-conceptions, from the time of the Crusades to the military orders of the Salvation Army, and of course, the Christian Soldier in the durable old hymn, forever marching as to war, the cross of Jesus going before, their royal master leading against the foe. With the possible exception of athletic similes, it is the serried imagery of combat that is most often evoked from the pulpit, and while the warrior archetype may not answer to the often diffuse and inchoate longings that bring seekers to the foot of the cross, it seems especially well suited to the evangelical aesthetic of conquest and conversion.
Given this potent affinity, it's hardly surprising that fundamentalists found a familiar context for their exalted concepts of authority, duty, and sacrifice within the military and all but inevitable that the methods of war would be deployed in the Great Commission: to reach the whole world for Jesus in preparation for his promised return.
It is a convergence that would, in turn, reach its apotheosis in You the Warrior Leader, a gung ho handbook for "applying military strategy in victorious spiritual leadership," published at the same time Weinstein was beginning to gird himself for a different kind of battle. Written by former Green Beret and current Southern Baptist Convention president Bobby Welch, You the Warrior Leader is as unequivocal a statement of evangelical militarism as could be imagined, an unabashed tactical manual on storming the barricades of unbelief with rousing rhetoric that evokes a kind of holy bloodlust for the trophies of triumphalism.
"Fix bayonets" commands the first chapter, broken into subheads variously titled "Scratching, Biting, Ear-Ripping-Off War Fighting," "Jesus the Warrior Leader," and "Making Hell Gun-Shy." In "The Quick and the Dead," a section dealing with battle-hardened evangelism, Welch seamlessly melds the urgency of conversion with a military leader's motivational role: "The Warrior Leader knows he must not only exemplify personal evangelism, he must never stop trying to get every Christian man, woman, boy, and girl to perform evangelism. Leaders must not allow those whom they lead to become disoriented and thereby fail to rescue family and friends from the devil and hell."
In the chapter "Attack! Attack! Attack!" Welch asks, "Remember the Warrior Leader's Mission-Vision?" as he hammers home with steely-eyed determination his grand strategy for winning souls: "To develop victorious spiritual-war fighters who form a force-multiplying army that accomplishes the Great Commission."
Michael L. Weinstein and Davin Seay are the authors of With God On Our Side: One Man's War Against an Evangelical Coup in America's Military (Thomas Dunne, 2007).