The American Religion of War

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The Holy Mother of All Bombs?

A few thoughts on violence and military idolatry in America

W.J. Astore

If you believe the polls, America is a nation of believers.  A nation of faith.  But is our faith truly in a pacific god of love?  Or do we instead worship a god of war?  Current and past events suggest that too often Americans place their faith in war and the military.  We continue to believe despite the evidence our belief is both wrongheaded and destructive.

We have a cult-like affection for war and the military.  It drives what we see — what we perceive.  Believing is seeing.  The military confesses to believe in “progress” in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, so we invent metrics that show how we’re winning (which is exactly what we did fifty years ago in Vietnam).

We are not a rational society.  We are a faith-based society.  And our temples and crosses are military bases and weaponry, which we export globally.  The U.S. has 800 overseas bases, and America dominates the international trade in arms.  Meanwhile, our missionaries are our Special Ops troops, which we send to 130 countries, spreading the American gospel.  The gospel of war and the gun.

The icons of American militarism are our weapons. Our warplanes, our drones, big bombs (the MOAB), the list goes on. They have become the iconic symbols of an idolatry of destruction.

A xenophobic form of patriotism exacerbates a religion of violence.  Exclusive rather than inclusive, it sets the boundaries of “us” versus “them.”  Critics and dissenters are cast out and exiled.

Meanwhile, in far-off foreign lands, we reject the reality of ruins and rubble.  We couch it instead in terms of salvation: “we had to destroy the village to save it.”  It’s another aspect of our evangelical approach to war.  It’s like being born again.  You must tear yourself down before you’re born again in the spirit of Christ.  We seem to believe cities must be ruined before we can declare victory over the enemy.

Consider 9/11/2001.  An inward-looking people may have kept the ruins of 9/11 as a monument to the victims.  But not us.  That’s expensive real estate, and on those ruins we were born again, building Freedom Tower, exactly 1776 feet in height.  Thus our fall was reinterpreted as rebirth, our defeat as victory, tragedy as triumph.  Even 9/11 itself is now celebrated as a day of patriotism.

Yes, we can reconstruct our own rubble, as we did after 9/11.  But will foreign rubble ever be reconstructed?  Cities like Mosul?  Well, who cares?  They are not of the body.  They are not us.  They are outcasts.  Let them survive in what’s left of their blasted buildings and homes.

Our TV shows reinforce our belief in violence and militarism.  New ones include “The Brave” on NBC, which begins by focusing on a pretty White female doctor kidnapped by Muslim terrorists and “brave” efforts to rescue her; “Valor” on the CW channel, featuring lots of helicopters and flags and automatic weapons; and the rather obvious “SEAL Team” on CBS, with elite Navy SEALs standing in for the superheroes of the past.  If you get tired of watching military heroics on TV, there’s always military-themed “shooter” video games.  Indeed, the military experience is everywhere, even in Madden football, where in “story mode” you can play against quarterback Dan Marino on an Army base in Iraq.  (The field is surrounded by a fortified fence, rocky hills, and a helicopter pad, among other exotic military features.)

America is being consumed by a religion of violence and mayhem.  We’re trapped in a dark maelstrom of death and destruction.  Yet how can we repudiate our god of war when we are so busy feeding him?  When we talk of “thoughts and prayers” after each tragedy, do we truly know which god we’re calling upon?

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.”

The U.S. Military and Religion

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An older symbol of the Chaplain Corps that includes Christian and Jewish symbols. There are now Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim symbols as well

W.J. Astore

Disturbing, upsetting, baffling: these words often apply when young troops face religious pressure or discrimination for the first time.

And it disturbs, upsets, and baffles me that a nation founded on religious freedom produces people that want to abridge or eliminate that freedom in the (false) name of following Christ.

It also disturbs, upsets, and baffles me that a military that is supposed to defend our Constitutional freedoms, to include freedom of religion, occasionally works in ways that undermine that very freedom.

I was born and raised within the Catholic church, but I would never push my religious beliefs on someone else.  Certainly not in a military context, in which supervisory authority is nearly absolute.

I believe there is a place for God (or gods, or no god) in the military, and a place for chaplains.  Troops should be able to worship freely in the military, as is their right as American citizens.  But there’s no place for proselytizing, pressure, “mandatory” Bible studies, and all the rest of that.

I remember how much Colorado Springs and the Air Force Academy changed between my first tour there (1990-92) and my second (1998-2002).  Lots of evangelical organizations (like Focus on the Family) built headquarters just to the east of the AF Academy.  I started to see that evangelical influence permeate the Academy.  I suppose I was lucky I left in 2002, just before the scandals involving religious discrimination broke.

The military attracts many young people looking for certitude as well as a mission, a calling.  Some of these young people come to espouse a narrow form of “Christianity,” one that sees itself as uniquely American and uniquely suited to a military context.

Yet how can troops take an oath to support and defend the Constitution, which enshrines freedom of religion, and then work to curtail or offend the religious freedoms of others?

Here’s what people need to remember about military settings: the authority of your direct supervisor is nearly absolute.  If your drill sergeant, your platoon commander, your company commander, makes it obvious that he or she favors Christianity, it puts enormous pressure on subordinates to conform, or at least to fake it.

If your boss in a civilian setting is an assertive Christian evangelist, at least you have the option of quitting (however painful that might prove).  There is no option in the military of “quitting” your platoon, your company, your unit.  Furthermore, in a war zone, refusing to conform to an evangelical zealot as a leader could literally become a matter of life and death.  Hey, Private Jones, you’re an atheist: go ahead and walk point again, i.e. take the lead as the unit walks through dangerous enemy territory infested with IEDs and snipers.  Maybe that’ll give you some faith in God.  Ha ha.

Again, the U.S. military must remember its purpose: to support and defend the Constitution.  In fulfilling that purpose, there is simply no place for evangelism of any religion, Christian or otherwise.

Note: Since 2005, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) has fought to ensure religious freedom within military settings.  The foundation represents nearly 45,000 service members, 96% of whom identify as Christian.  Find out more about the MRFF at http://www.militaryreligiousfreedom.org.

Liberty First: What an Old Coin Can Teach Us

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My dad’s half dime

W.J. Astore

When I was a kid, I was a stamp collector.  My dad, in contrast, saved old coins.  He was not a collector; he didn’t file them away in special folders. He just tossed old silver coins into a cigar box.

My favorite coin of his was also the oldest one he had: a “half dime” from 1845.  To me, it’s a remarkably simple and aesthetically pleasing design, featuring a seated figure of “Liberty” on the obverse, with the words “Half Dime” on the reverse.

half dime

Note what’s missing: the words “In God We Trust.”  This motto was not added to coins until the national trauma of the U.S. Civil War reinforced religious revivals that had preceded that war.  It made its first appearance in 1864.  (Interestingly, in the “Pledge of Allegiance,” the words “under God” were added only in 1954 during another crisis, the fear of communism stoked by McCarthyism during the Cold War.)

As a nation it seems we invoke God during crises, calling on Him for support and guidance and blessing.

But I want to return to my dad’s half dime from 1845, because that coin, in its simplicity, enshrines a value that is most fundamental to our country: Liberty.

With respect to religion, liberty to me means the freedom to worship God in one’s own way, to include the freedom not to worship God, even the freedom to express disbelief in God.

Such liberty was extremely rare in the 18th century when our nation was founded.  Back then, being labeled an “atheist” was roughly equivalent to being labeled a “terrorist” today.  But our nation’s founders were of diverse religious persuasions, to include Catholics and Quakers as well as myriad branches of “dissenting” Protestantism.  A few were deists (Thomas Jefferson most famously) who rejected the Trinitarian Christianity of most of their peers, and a small number (Thomas Paine, perhaps) were skeptics to the point of atheism.

What united them was a belief in liberty.  In religion, this was expressed as the freedom to worship in any way you chose, or not to worship at all.  Thus there was no religious “test” for office, no requirement to be a Christian or to express a belief that “In God We Trust.”

That profound belief in personal freedom — in liberty first — is captured on my dad’s old coin.  It’s also captured in the Pledge of Allegiance before 1954: “one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all.”

In today’s political climate, with all of our public prayers and calls to God to bless America, with talk of Muslims not being allowed to hold office because their god is somehow the wrong god, we need to recall that America was founded on Liberty first.

Or as my mom put it in her inimitable way, “You worry about your soul and I’ll worry about mine.”  Jefferson and Paine would have liked my mom.

 

Are Troops Being Evangelized Instead of Being Treated for PTSD?

An older symbol of the Chaplain Corps that includes Christian and Jewish symbols.  There are now Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim symbols as well
An older symbol of the Chaplain Corps that includes Christian and Jewish symbols. There are now Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim symbols as well

W.J. Astore

I wrote the following article for Huffington Post back in August of 2010.  Good Friday seems an appropriate day to revive it.

Our country was founded on the idea of religious freedom, and several of our nation’s founders were deists (Thomas Jefferson) or skeptical to the point of atheism (Thomas Paine).  Religious plurality and diversity characterized America from our earliest days, and so too was that true of our citizen-military.

Private religious belief should remain that: private.  Evangelism in military settings is inappropriate.  It is especially insidious when practiced by supervisors.  Militaries are rigidly stratified, and certain positions (drill sergeants, first sergeants, commanders, and so on) carry with them great authority.  It is totally inappropriate for NCOs and officers in supervisory positions to promote religion in any way, especially among their subordinates.  

That said, you cannot banish religion from the military since our military will always be a reflection of American society.  In national polls, Americans routinely say they believe in God, with the percentage affirming this belief exceeding 90%. Our military today is more rural than urban, more small town than big city, more Southern and Midwestern than Coastal. In short, our military recruits from areas of the country that are often powerfully infused with evangelical Christian beliefs. Such beliefs are not going to disappear when troops don their uniforms.

God and country are united in the minds of many of our troops.  And a person’s mind is his or her own private affair.  What we must guard against is the intrusion of religion in policy areas and public arenas where it doesn’t belong.  The article below highlights one such case.

Yesterday [8/9/2010], the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) and Veterans for Common Sense sent a startling letter to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. It alleged that the military has sent some psychological casualties to chaplains for counseling, rather than to mental health care professionals for diagnosis and treatment. In a few cases, the letter alleges, chaplains sought to provide comfort through evangelism. In essence, it seems wounded and disturbed troops were encouraged to put their trust in Jesus: that He would provide for them if only they accepted Him.

General George S. Patton Jr. was fired during World War II for slapping soldiers with PTSD. Assuming the MRFF letter is correct, are we prepared to fire chaplains for seeking to alleviate PTSD and other disorders with a healthy dose of scripture and heartfelt appeals to Jesus?

I would advise against this.

I can well imagine that a few chaplains, perhaps of an evangelical bent, in their zeal to provide help, may have conflated their own personal conversion experiences and the resultant comfort they gained from them with the kind of professional care and treatment provided by mental health care experts. If one’s own doubts and problems were resolved through heartfelt conversion, it’s quite possible one would believe that evangelism in the name of Jesus could cure all ills — a belief they may then have tried to transfer to hurting, even desperate, troops.

Such misguided ministering, if it exists, must stop.

But at the same time let’s not forget that chaplains are invaluable as counselors. The equivalent at times to a “big brother” or “big sister,” they are both part of a unit but also in a (moral) sense stand above it and the entire military system. It’s a demanding job — indeed, it’s more than a job, it’s a calling — and the vast majority of chaplains perform it well.

Chaplains, of course, are not mental health care providers. Psychological trauma and other serious mental health issues clearly go beyond their abilities and training to treat and meliorate. The letter from the MRFF and Veterans for Common Sense reminds us of this fact, as well as of the burdens of war on our troops and of the dire shortages of qualified mental health care. It’s the latter that requires the lion’s share of our attention and resources.

That said, allow me a moment to praise military chaplains. The several I’ve known have been dedicated, decent, godly souls as well as good troops. They share in the burdens of their units even as they provide selfless counsel, spiritual or otherwise. One older chaplain I knew eagerly went through jump training prior to joining the 101st Airborne. If he was going to serve alongside airborne troops, he wanted to know what jumping out of airplanes was like.

National prayer breakfasts I’ve attended, run by military chaplains of multiple faiths, were always open to troops of any faith (or no faith at all). There were no distinctions between Protestants or Catholics, or for that matter between Muslims or Jews. As celebrations of non-denominational and undifferentiated spirituality, they were irenic, life-affirming, even moving.

Let’s be careful, then, not to let instances of Christian evangelism in the ranks distract us from a healthy exercise of spirituality and religious feeling. Let’s applaud our military chaplains even as we recognize that they too have limitations. But most of all, let’s be sure to get our troops the professional mental health care they both need and deserve.

The Pledge of Allegiance: What It Means

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W.J. Astore

I read old stuff.  Heck, I’m a historian: that’s what I’m supposed to do.  So I was reading an old pamphlet on “The Indiana World War Memorial” (circa 1940) and came across the Pledge of Allegiance as it was recited before McCarthyism reared its ugly head in the 1950s:

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.

You’ll notice what’s missing: that whole idea of “under God.”  Those words were added in the early 1950s as a way of contrasting God-fearing (and God-favored, if you’ll recall American exceptionalism) Americans to the godless Communists.

You’ll recall, of course, that our nation was founded in part on religious freedom.  The idea you could worship any god or gods you wanted to, or none at all.  We should return to the original “godless” pledge.  It served us quite well in World War II; it would serve us quite well today.

After all, Americans have no monopoly on God.  Furthermore, God does not uniquely bless us.  To believe that is to violate the real Ten Commandments, for to believe you are uniquely blessed by God is tantamount to raising yourself to the level of God.  No — as Abraham Lincoln wisely said, we must not assume that God is on our side; we must pray that we are on His side.

Speaking of the Ten Commandments, Tom Engelhardt at TomDispatch.com has a compelling list of his “ten commandments” in America’s ongoing war on terror.  Like Lincoln, Engelhardt is wise enough not to assume that God is always chanting “USA!  USA!”

Here are Engelhardt’s “ten commandments” for America and for a better world.  I urge you to read the rest of his article at this link:

1. Thou shalt not torture: Torture of every horrific sort in these years seems to have been remarkably ineffective in producing useful information for the state.  Even if it were proved effective in breaking up al-Qaeda plots, however, it would still have been both a desperately illegal (if unpunished) act and a foreign policy disaster of the first order.

2. Thou shalt not send drones to assassinate anyone, American or not: The ongoing U.S. drone assassination campaigns, while killing individual terrorists, have driven significant numbers of people in the backlands of the planet into the arms of terror outfits and so only increased their size and appeal. Without a doubt, such drone strikes represent a global war of, not on, terror. In the process, they have turned the president into our assassin-in-chief and us into an assassin nation.

3. Thou shalt not invade another country: D’oh!

4. Thou shalt not occupy another country: By the way, how did that work out the last two times the U.S. tried it?

5. Thou shalt not upgrade thy nuclear arsenal: The U.S. has now committed itself to a trillion-dollar, decades-long upgrade of its vast arsenal.  If any significant portion of it were ever used, it would end human life as we know it on this planet and so should be considered a singular prospective crime against humanity. After years in which the only American nuclear focus was on a country — Iran — with no nuclear weapons, that this has happened without serious debate or discussion is in itself criminal.

6. Thou shalt not intercept the communications of thy citizens or others all over the world or pursue the elaboration of a global surveillance state based on criminal acts: There seems to be no place the NSA has been unwilling to break into in order to surveil the planet.  For unimaginable reams of information that have seemingly been of next to no actual use, the NSA and the national security state have essentially outlawed privacy and cracked open various amendments to the Constitution.  No information is worth such a price.

7. Thou shalt not be free of punishment for crimes of state: In these years of genuine criminality, official Washington has become a crime-free zone.  No matter the seriousness of the act, none — not one committed in the name of the state in the post-9/11 era, no matter how heinous — has been brought into a courtroom.

8. Thou shalt not use a massive system of secret classification to deprive Americans of all real knowledge of acts of state: In 2011, the U.S. classified 92 million documents and the shroud of secrecy over the business of the “people’s” government has only grown worse in the years since.  Increasingly, for our own “safety” we are only supposed to know what the government prefers us to know.  This represents, of course, a crime against democracy.

9. Thou shalt not act punitively toward those who want to let Americans in on what the national security state is doing in their name: The fierce and draconian campaign the Obama administration has launched against leakers and whistleblowers is unprecedented in our history.  It is a growing challenge to freedom of the press and to the citizen’s right to know.

10. Thou shalt not infringe on the rights of the citizenry to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness: Need I even explain?”

Why not make a pledge, America, to these “commandments”?  For they will help us to ensure liberty and justice for all.

On Religion

Eve tempting Adam. I guess Adam didn't have a mind of his own
Eve tempting Adam. I guess Adam didn’t have a mind of his own

W.J. Astore

The other day my wife and I were watching Wadjda, a terrific film about a spirited Saudi girl who dreams of buying and riding her very own bicycle.  The film does a great job of highlighting the constraints put on women in traditional Saudi and Islamic culture.  Women are not allowed to drive, they must veil themselves whenever they can be seen by men, they are trained to be subservient and not to attract attention to themselves, and so on.

Watching the constraints under which Saudi women live their lives, my spirited wife uttered the following aphorism:

Religion – written by men, for men.  And that’s all you need to know.

Having been raised Catholic, it’s hard to disagree with her.  The Catholic Church has historically been misogynist.  It was Eve, after all, who tempted Adam.  She was “the weaker vessel” who was cursed with the pain of childbirth because of her “original sin.”  The Church itself, to state the obvious, is run entirely by men.  Even the woman most respected by the Church, the Virgin Mary, is an unattainable ideal.  A woman who gets pregnant without losing her virtue and virginity?  Try aspiring to that.

Whenever a religion, no matter if it’s Islam or Catholicism or some other faith or sect, places half of humanity in inferior and subservient roles, we must question very closely its true intent and inspiration.  Surely a just and compassionate God would not sanction a religion that subordinates women to the whims of men.

Obviously, I know many believers, women as well as men, will disagree with this.  They will point to their faith, their holy books, the power of tradition.  Or they will try to explain how their religion really doesn’t discriminate against women and so on.

Here I recall a saying that Temple Grandin says she will never forget: “Men will wrangle for religion, write for it, fight for it, die for it, anything but live for it.”

How true.  And I’d add that any religion worth living for is one that treats men and women equally as believers.  I don’t think God, if He or She (!) exists, would want it any other way.