America’s Militarized Profession of Faith

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The Church of the Pentagon

W.J. Astore

I grew up in the Catholic Church, where I professed my faith weekly at every mass I attended.  I also grew up a fan of the U.S. military, even as I read many books critical of its performance in the Vietnam War.  Thankfully, I didn’t have to profess my faith in that military, but if I had, what would such a “profession” have looked like?  This is the subject of my latest article at TomDispatch.com, which you can read about here.

Here’s what I believe America’s profession of faith would look like at this moment in our militarized history:

* We believe in wars. We may no longer believe in formal declarations of war (not since December 1941 has Congress made one in our name), but that sure hasn’t stopped us from waging them. From Korea to Vietnam, Afghanistan to Iraq, the Cold War to the War on Terror, and so many military interventions in between, including Grenada, Panama, and Somalia, Americans are always fighting somewhere as if we saw great utility in thumbing our noses at the Prince of Peace. (That’s Jesus Christ, if I remember my Catholic catechism correctly.)

* We believe in weaponry, the more expensive the better. The underperforming F-35 stealth fighter may cost $1.45 trillion over its lifetime. An updated nuclear triad (land-based missiles, nuclear submarines, and strategic bombers) may cost that already mentioned $1.7 trillion. New (and malfunctioning) aircraft carriers cost us more than $10 billion each. And all such weaponry requests get funded, with few questions asked, despite a history of their redundancy, ridiculously high price, regular cost overruns, and mediocre performance. Meanwhile, Americans squabble bitterly over a few hundred million dollars for the arts and humanities.

* We believe in weapons of mass destruction. We believe in them so strongly that we’re jealous of anyone nibbling at our near monopoly. As a result, we work overtime to ensure that infidels and atheists (that is, the Iranians and North Koreans, among others) don’t get them. In historical terms, no country has devoted more research or money to deadly nuclear, biological, and chemical weaponry than the United States. In that sense, we’ve truly put our money where our mouths are (and where a devastating future might be).

* We believe with missionary zeal in our military and seek to establish our “faith” everywhere. Hence, our global network of perhaps 800 overseas military bases. We don’t hesitate to deploy our elite missionaries, our equivalent to the Jesuits, the Special Operations forces to more than 130 countries annually. Similarly, the foundation for what we like to call foreign assistance is often military training and foreign military sales. Our present supreme leader, Pope Trump I, boasts of military sales across the globe, most notably to the infidel Saudis. Even when Congress makes what, until recently, was the rarest of attempts to rein in this deadly trade in arms, Pope Trump vetoes it. His rationale: weapons and profits should rule all.

* We believe in our college of cardinals, otherwise known as America’s generals and admirals. We sometimes appoint them (or anoint them?) to the highest positions in the land. While Trump’s generals — Michael Flynn, James Mattis, H.R. McMaster, and John Kelly — have fallen from grace at the White House, America’s generals and admirals continue to rule globally. They inhabit proconsul-like positions in sweeping geographical commands that (at least theoretically) cover the planet and similarly lead commands aimed at dominating the digital-computer realm and special operations. One of them will head a new force meant to dominate space through time eternal. A “strategic” command (the successor to the Strategic Air Command, or SAC, so memorably satirized in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove) continues to ensure that, at some future moment, the U.S. will be able to commit mass genocide by quite literally destroying the world with nuclear weapons. Indeed, Pope Trump recently boasted that he could end America’s Afghan War in a week, apparently through the mass nuclear genocide of (his figure) 10 million Afghans. Even as he then blandly dismissed the idea of wiping that country “off the face of the earth,” he openly reflected the more private megalomania of those military professionals funded by the rest of us to think about “the unthinkable.” In sum, everything is — theoretically at least — under the thumbs of our unelected college of cardinals. Their overblown term for it is “full-spectrum dominance,” which, in translation, means they grant themselves god-like powers over our lives and that of our planet (though the largely undefeated enemies in their various wars don’t seem to have acknowledged this reality).

* We believe that freedom comes through obedience. Those who break ranks from our militarized church and protest, like Chelsea Manning, are treated as heretics and literally tortured.

* We believe military spending brings wealth and jobs galore, even when it measurably doesn’t. Military production is both increasingly automated and increasingly outsourced, leading to far fewer good-paying American jobs compared to spending on education, infrastructure repairs of and improvements in roads, bridges, levees, and the like, or just about anything else for that matter.

* We believe, and our most senior leaders profess to believe, that our military represents the very best of us, that we have the “finest” one in human history.

* We believe in planning for a future marked by endless wars, whether against terrorism or “godless” states like China and Russia, which means our military church must be forever strengthened in the cause of winning ultimate victory.

* Finally, we believe our religion is the one true faith. (Just as I used to be taught that the Catholic Church was the one true church and that salvation outside it was unattainable.) More pacific “religions” are dismissed as weak, misguided, and exploitative. Consider, for example, the denunciation of NATO countries that refuse to spend more money on their militaries. Such a path to the future is heretical; therefore, they must be punished.

Please read the rest of my article here at TomDispatch.com.  And please comment.  Did I miss anything in my version of America’s militarized profession of faith?

Seminary Rules for Students while on Vacation

W.J. Astore

Many years ago, I came across a brief (four-page) pamphlet of rules for seminarians while on vacation.  I found it in an old book while doing research on Catholic reactions to science in the 19th century.  The pamphlet refers to students at St. Charles College of the Petit Seminaire (minor seminary) of St. Sulpice.  St. Charles opened in 1848 in Maryland but was largely destroyed by fire in 1911.

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There’s no date on the pamphlet.  I was researching in books mainly from the 1850s and 1860s, so perhaps this is the best estimate for when this pamphlet was printed.  It’s a fragile and interesting piece of Catholic history, so I thought I’d post the text here for other researchers, and for people who might be curious about the rules Catholic seminarians were expected to follow when they left the seminary on “vacation.”  The text below shows a life of discipline that didn’t end when the student left the seminary; indeed, in the “wilderness” of real life, seminarians were warned to be on their guard as well as on their best behavior.

Manner of Spending the Vacation for the Students of St. Charles’ College, Petit Séminaire of St. Sulpice.

Daily Exercises.

Morning.

  1. Have a fixed hour of rising, never later than six o’clock; Morning Prayer; Meditation for a quarter of an hour at least, from some edifying book.
  2. Mass, if possible, every day.
  3. During the forenoon, the Little Hours of the Office of the Blessed Virgin.
  4. An hour or two of serious Study, according to the advice of your director.

Afternoon.

  1. Read a Chapter of the New Testament before dinner, and make the Particular examen on the Virtue which you have proposed to yourself to acquire. Never be ashamed to say Grace before and after meals.
  2. Vespers and Complins. Pay a visit to the Blessed Sacrament, if the Church is not too distant.
  3. Recite Matins and Lauds either in the Church or whilst taking a walk; Beads; Spiritual Reading.
  4. Evening Prayers and Examination of Conscience. Retire to bed, as much as possible, at a fixed hour; and prepare the subject of meditation for the following day.

Weekly Exercises.

  1. Receive the Sacraments as often as in the Seminary. Their assistance is much more needed in the world. Have the same zeal for communion as when in the Seminary.
  2. On Sundays and Festivals assist in surplice with gravity and piety at the office of the Parish. If your services are required to serve Mass, do so in a pious and edifying manner. Do not speak in the sacristy without necessity; and then in a few words, and with a low voice.
  3. Show great respect for your Parish Priest; great deference for his salutary admonitions; and entire willingness to assist him, should he require your services. Seek the society of Ecclesiastics.

What is to be Observed.

Towards God.

The Religious duties prescribed above, in the Daily and Weekly Exercises. Habitual recourse to the Blessed Virgin, as Special Protectress of the Vacation. Fidelity to the laws of the Church.

Towards the Neighbor.

Towards All—Charity; Condescension; Politeness.

Towards Parents—Docility; Forwardness to oblige them; the most affectionate Respect.

Towards Brothers, Sisters, and Relatives—Be among them as an angel of peace.

Towards Strangers—Discretion; Reserve; Circumspection with the young; Avoid too great familiarity. If you can, do something for the poor.

Towards Oneself.

Modesty; Simplicity; Avoid every appearance of haughtiness. In moments of difficulty have recourse to God and to the Blessed Virgin. Keep a strict guard over yourself, especially in the company of persons of a different sex. Moderate your curiosity. Avoid noisy conversation, loud laughter, and every thing contrary to clerical modesty. Before setting out on a journey say the “Itinerarium.”

What is to be Avoided.

  1. Be on your guard against Human Respect, and even sometimes against the improper counsels of your relatives. Hence you should show yourself from the beginning of the vacation to be such as God requires, and as you have promised to be.
  2. Avoid Idleness, the source of temptation and dangerous to all, but particularly to youth. In the beginning and at the end of the vacation, abstain from serious studies; those days should be spent in exercises of piety.
  3. Be not discouraged after a first fault. Should you neglect any of your duties, resolve to do better; and apply with new zeal to fulfill them. Should you be so unhappy as to fall into sin, go and confess immediately.
  4. Avoid—with extreme caution—bad company, dangerous reading, worldly entertainments and parties in which one is exposed to see, hear, or do what might wound conscience.
  5. Be resolute in refusing to be treated with better fare than is usual in the family, or with other attentions always out of place, which parents think themselves bound to show a son who is an ecclesiastic. Avoid spending some days at the home of a fellow seminarian, whose parents might be inconvenienced by your stay.
  6. Avoid, as well as in private as in public, all vanity and worldliness in dress, gesture, gait or conversation.

Review these rules occasionally by way of spiritual reading.

J.M.J. (Jesus, Mary, Joseph)

Mom’s Wisdom on Religion

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That’s mom, circa 1950

W.J. Astore

Today, I want to share a bracing view, courtesy of my mother.  She converted to Catholicism (from Protestantism) when she married my dad, but she wasn’t much of a church-goer.  When my dad suggested she should accompany him to mass on Sundays, she had a telling rejoinder:

You worry about your soul — I’ll worry about mine.

Excellent advice.  Mom had a way of speaking that cut to the chase.

When it comes to religion, too many Americans seek to push their beliefs on others.  And often there’s some guilt or a veiled threat in the push.  “A good person goes to church.” “These are holy days of obligation.”  “You should go to set a good example for the kids.” “Don’t forget judgment day — God is looking down on you right now.”

My mom was having none of that.  She also didn’t need church to do the right thing.  She was kind and generous and, in my opinion, followed the example of the Gospel without making airs about it.

When it comes to religion, few people want to be pushed into attending “mandatory” practices.  Indeed, I’ve always liked Christ’s teachings on praying to God in private, rather than standing on a street corner and shouting your beliefs to the masses.  Speaking of which, I once witnessed a man doing exactly that in Oxford, England, shouting on the street, proclaiming the good news.  When someone complained, he cited a Biblical passage that enjoined him to proclaim his faith in a loud voice so that others might follow in his footsteps.

That’s a problem with the Bible: So many passages, so many messages, so many interpretations.

Still, I persist in believing in my mother’s aphorism: Focus on the health of your own soul and its relationship to whatever higher power or higher ideals you believe in.  Don’t focus on the souls and the beliefs and practices of others.

Or, as Christ put it, “Judge not — lest you be judged.”

Why Fund the Arts and Humanities?

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W.J. Astore

Federal funding for the arts and humanities often comes under attack, notably from conservative quarters when a particular artistic expression is considered to be objectionable.  Cut the NEH and NEA (national endowments for the humanities and arts), Paul Ryan says, and we can save a whopping $335 million a year (slightly more than the cost of one F-35 jet fighter for the Marine Corps).

What are the humanities and the arts, after all?  Why should the government fund them? Can’t we let the marketplace rule?  Won’t good art find an audience (and patrons) without the government getting involved?

Art and the humanities?  Well, they are what make us human.  Art and music and dance and theater, but also our history, literature, languages, poetry, and so on.  Art and the humanities teach us about the human condition — what it means to be human.  So, in a way, religion is also part of the arts and humanities in the secular sense of the history of various belief systems, what they teach us about morality and ethics, as well as their iconography, music, and so on.

As a personal aside, I’m sure my first true artistic/humanistic experience came in my local Catholic church.  The splendor of light streaming through stained glass windows, the intricacy of the architecture, the majesty of the altar, the beauty of the music: all of this and more represented an artistic and humanistic experience that resonated with me, putting me in touch with something larger than myself.  I’ve felt similar majesty being out in the cathedral of nature, gazing out at the Continental Divide at 12,000 feet as clouds raced overhead after a long hike in the Colorado Rockies.

Nurturing and protecting the arts, humanities, and nature too is fundamental to being human.  We should be stewards of beauty in all its forms.  And certainly government must have a role in funding the arts and humanities as well as protecting the planet.

Unfortunately, the American political scene is oligarchical and driven by venality and greed.  So nowadays what you see in education is an obsessive push for STEM, for competitiveness vis-a-vis various foreign countries, for workforce development, as if education can be reduced simply to job/vocational training. Arts and humanities? Humbug!

I have nothing against science, technology, engineering, and math.  I majored in mechanical engineering as an undergraduate, loved calculus and differential equations, took several courses in physics and chemistry, and eventually got advanced degrees in the history of science and technology. Science is great and wonderful; technology is fascinating and much needed. Vocational training is important too.

But there’s more to life than getting a job.

Oligarchical powers don’t like to fund the arts and humanities.  They’d rather fund business and industry in the name of competitiveness (and profit!). But there’s more to life than building things, crunching numbers, and working for the man. We have souls, if you will (there’s the Catholic in me), and our souls need to be nurtured by ideas and ideals, by beauty, by the angels of our better natures as represented by the arts and humanities.

So please act to save the arts and humanities, especially in our schools. They enrich our lives in ways you simply can’t measure with dollar signs.  And please act to preserve nature and our planet as well, whether you see it as God’s creation or as spaceship Earth — or both.

Did Jesus Have a Wife?

In this papyrus, Jesus mentions "my wife" and suggests she is his disciple
In this papyrus, Jesus mentions “my wife” and suggests she is his disciple

W.J. Astore

Did Jesus have a wife? Or, if not a wife, did his mention of “wife” symbolize a greater role for women as disciples? I’ve always wondered about the proudly patriarchal Catholic church and its marginalization of women. WWJD?  Would would Jesus do about a church that is so male-dominated?  So proud of its prejudices and biases vis-a-vis women and their reputed weaknesses?  I’m thinking Jesus would not have approved of official church teachings on women.

The papyrus in which Jesus mentions a wife is suggestive but not conclusive.  Nevertheless, it should spur the church to reexamine its teachings on the proper roles for women within the church.

Women should not be segregated in separate and unequal communities. They should be incorporated in the church as disciples every bit as equal and whole as male disciples.  They should be able to become priests and to administer the sacraments.  No more Adam’s rib and weaker vessel nonsense, Catholics.

It seems a radical concept to a church burdened with two thousand years of woman-marginalizing tradition.  But Jesus came to forge a new covenant, a new world order.  It’s time for the church, at least partially, to fulfill His vision.

Open your hearts, Catholics, to the equality of women within the church.  By doing so, you’ll be following Jesus more nearly.  Or so I believe.

 

Reforming the National Security State (updated)

The World as a Confessional, with the NSA as its Priests
The World as Confessional, with the NSA as its Priests

W.J. Astore

At TomDispatch.com, Tom Engelhardt has an especially fine exposé of the National Security State as a religion with its own priesthood, holy books, dogma, and true believers/followers.

I recommend reading the entire article, but I do want to highlight some implications of his argument.  Like the Catholic Church (and I’m Catholic), the National Security State is hierarchical, conservative, and often anti-democratic.  We, the laity, have little if any say in how the system operates, even as we’re the ones who fill the coffers and collection plates.  We are subject to a militarized (or militant) aristocracy that sees itself as uniquely privileged, the “best and the brightest,” working to keep us safe from the devil of the day.  To question the system and privileges of the powerful is to risk being seen as an apostate.

But the Catholic Church is, at least in theory, dedicated to the cause of peace (though historically sometimes at the point of a sword).  The U.S. National Security State, despite (or rather because of) the evangelicals or true-believers in its midst, is dominated by a church militant and a church triumphant.  This is unsurprising.  Powerful militaries seek military solutions.  Defeats or stalemates like Iraq and Afghanistan are reinterpreted as triumphs (at least for the U.S. military).  If they defy reinterpretation, defeats can always be attributed to Judas-like figures within the body of the American politic, like the anti-war hippies of the Vietnam era (even if the latter looked more like Jesus than Lucifer).

The biggest problem is how the dominance of the National Security State weakens our democratic structures, including our right to privacy.  Consider the penetration and interception of all forms of electronic communication by the NSA and similar “intelligence” agencies.  Like the Catholic Church with its rite of confession, the NSA listens to our “sins” in the name of safeguarding us from harm.  In the bad old days, the Church used its rite of confession to gain access to the secrets of the powerful.  Leave it to the NSA to trump the Church by turning the whole world into a confessional booth.

Such a subversion of privacy doesn’t preserve democracy – it destroys it.  Like the Catholic Church of the late 15th and early 16th centuries, the National Security State is choking on its own power and privileges, losing its sense of mission as it wallows in money and sanctimony.

Where is Martin Luther when you need him?  For like the Catholic Church in the 16th century, the U.S. National Security State needs a serious reformation.

Update (1/7): At TomDispatch.com, Nick Turse has a great article today on the growing reach and power of Special Operations Command (SOCOM) within the U.S. military.  It’s a powerful coda to Engelhardt’s article.  Extending the Catholic Church analogy, SOCOM in the U.S. military today is much like the Jesuit Order of the Catholic Church — missionaries of the American military across the world.  And like the Jesuits they see themselves as an elite, as true believers, as holy warriors deserving of secrecy and privilege and power.

As such, they believe they should not be accountable to the laity — meaning us.  Neither do they believe they are accountable to our legal representatives in Congress.  They answer to their Loyola (Admiral McRaven) and ultimately to the Pope (whoever the commander in chief happens to be, as long as he supports them).

The National Security State has truly become the new national religion of America.  We worship at its Pentagon of Power, its huge NSA facilities.  They are America’s true national cathedrals.