Article — From the May 2009 issue
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Article — From the May 2009 issue
When Barack Obama moved into the Oval Office in January, he inherited a military not just drained by a two-front war overseas but fighting a third battle on the home front, a subtle civil war over its own soul. On one side are the majority of military personnel, professionals who regardless of their faith or lack thereof simply want to get their jobs done; on the other is a small but powerful movement of Christian soldiers concentrated in the officer corps. There’s Major General Johnny A. Weida, who as commandant at the Air Force Academy made its National Day of Prayer services exclusively Christian, and also created a code for evangelical cadets: whenever Weida said, “Airpower,” they were to respond “Rock Sir!”—a reference to Matthew 7:25. (The general told them that when non-evangelical cadets asked about the mysterious call-and-response, they should share the gospel.) There’s Major General Robert Caslen—commander of the 25th Infantry Division, a.k.a. “Tropic Lightning”—who in 2007 was found by a Pentagon inspector general’s report to have violated military ethics by appearing in uniform, along with six other senior Pentagon officers, in a video for the Christian Embassy, a fundamentalist ministry to Washington elites. There’s Lieutenant General Robert Van Antwerp, the Army chief of engineers, who has also lent his uniform to the Christian cause, both in a Trinity Broadcasting Network tribute to Christian soldiers called Red, White, and Blue Spectacular and at a 2003 Billy Graham rally—televised around the world on the Armed Forces Network—at which he declared the baptisms of 700 soldiers under his command evidence of the Lord’s plan to “raise up a godly army.”
What men such as these have fomented is a quiet coup within the armed forces: not of generals encroaching on civilian rule but of religious authority displacing the military’s once staunchly secular code. Not a conspiracy but a cultural transformation, achieved gradually through promotions and prayer meetings, with personal faith replacing protocol according to the best intentions of commanders who conflate God with country. They see themselves not as subversives but as spiritual warriors—“ambassadors for Christ in uniform,” according to Officers’ Christian Fellowship; “government paid missionaries,” according to Campus Crusade’s Military Ministry.
As a whole, the military is actually slightly less religious than the general population: 20 percent of the roughly 1.4 million active-duty personnel checked off a box for a 2008 Department of Defense survey that says “no religious preference,” compared with the 16.1 percent of Americans who describe themselves as “unaffiliated.” These ambivalent soldiers should not be confused with the actively irreligious, though. Only half of one percent of the military accepts the label “atheist” or “agnostic.” (Jews are even scarcer, accounting for only one servicemember in three hundred; Muslims are just one in four hundred.) Around 22 percent, meanwhile, identify themselves as affiliated with evangelical or Pentecostal denominations. But that number is misleading. It leaves out those attached to the traditional mainline denominations—about 7 percent of the military—who describe themselves as evangelical; George W. Bush, for instance, is a Methodist. Among the 19 percent of military members who are Roman Catholics, meanwhile, there is a small but vocal subset who tend politically to affiliate with conservative evangelicals. And then there is the 20 percent of the military who describe themselves simply as “Christian,” a category that encompasses both those who give God little thought and the many evangelicals who reject denominational affiliation as divisive of the Body of Christ. “I don’t like ‘religion,’” a fundamentalist evangelical major told me. “That’s what put my savior on the cross. The Pharisees.”
Within the fundamentalist front in the officer corps, the best organized group is Officers’ Christian Fellowship, with 15,000 members active at 80 percent of military bases and an annual growth rate, in recent years, of 3 percent. Founded during World War II, OCF was for most of its history concerned mainly with the spiritual lives of those who sought it out, but since 9/11 it has moved in a more militant direction. According to the group’s current executive director, retired Air Force Lieutenant General Bruce L. Fister, the “global war on terror”—to which Obama has committed 17,000 new troops in Afghanistan—is “a spiritual battle of the highest magnitude.” As jihad has come to connote violence, so spiritual war has moved closer to actual conflict, “continually confronting an implacable, powerful foe who hates us and eagerly seeks to destroy us,” declares “The Source of Combat Readiness,” an OCF Scripture study prepared on the eve of the Iraq War.
But another OCF Bible study, “Mission Accomplished,” warns that victory abroad does not mean the war is won at home. “If Satan cannot succeed with threats from the outside, he will seek to destroy from within,” asserts the study, a reference to “fellow countrymen” both in biblical times and today who practice “spiritual adultery.” “Mission Accomplished” takes as its text Nehemiah 1–6, the story of the “wallbuilder” who rebuilt the fortifications around Jerusalem. An outsider might misinterpret the wall metaphor as a sign of respect for separation of church and state, but in contemporary fundamentalist thinking the story stands for just the opposite: a wall within which church and state are one. “With the wall completed the people could live an integrated life,” the study argues. “God was to be Lord of all or not Lord at all.” So it is today, “Mission Accomplished” continues, proposing that before military Christians can complete their wall, they must bring this “Lord of all” to the entire armed forces. “We will need to press ahead obediently,” the study concludes, “not allowing the opposition, all of which is spearheaded by Satan, to keep us from the mission of reclaiming territory for Christ in the military.”
Jeff Sharlet is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine and the author of The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power.
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