Faith and the Uniform

Monday, November 17, 2008 at 6:00 am
A chaplain holds services for soldiers in an operating base in Ramadi, Iraq. (

A chaplain holds services for soldiers in an operating base in Ramadi, Iraq. (

So there are atheists in foxholes after all.

Last week, on the eve of Veterans Day, the Secular Coalition for America and the Military Assn. of Atheists and Freethinkers held a news conference in Washington to present an open letter to President-elect Barack Obama. Citing a report that found 21 percent of those in the armed forces identifying themselves as atheists or having “no religion,” the groups called on the new administration to pursue a military policy more open to nonbelievers.

The action follows on the heels of a much-publicized legal case involving atheism and the military. Jeremy Hall, 23, a U.S. Army specialist, grew up a Bible-reading Baptist in rural North Carolina. But his faith in God did not survive the battlefields of Iraq. Since disclosing his atheism, Hall claims he has become a target of insult and scorn — labeled “immoral,” “devil worshiper” and, curiously enough, gay — by fellow GIs and superior officers. But the pith of his complaint runs deeper than personal insult.

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

In his lawsuit, filed in Kansas last year, Hall and his co-plaintiff, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, accuse the military establishment not only of prejudice against nonbelievers but of blatant favoritism toward Christianity. As the suit challenging the place of religion in the armed forces lumbers toward a constitutional showdown, Hall and the Secular Coalition for America have sparked a national conversation about one of the military’s least discussed shibboleths.

The battle lines are already drawn. Critics depict Hall’s complaint as a campaign to destroy the spiritual foundation that the nation’s military has depended on for centuries. (“His right to spew his lying hot air cannot be allowed to decrease the morale of soldiers in combat,” writes one Christian blogger.) Meanwhile, the latest crop of best-selling atheists grant Hall some form of secular sainthood.

U.S. martial leaders have long prayed before and after battle: George Washington at the close of the Revolutionary War; George Dewey after his victory against the Spanish fleet at Manila; and Dwight D. Eisenhower on the eve of D-Day. Chaplains have also been key components of U.S. fighting forces, from the ragtag colonial militias to the highly professional units of today.

So when Americans learn that soldiers are being evangelized on military bases, that religious materials are often circulated among troops and that depictions of Washington kneeling in prayer are ubiquitous in military circles, they might likely see all this as an organic part of a venerable tradition.

But these incidents are anything but organic — and not nearly as deeply rooted as one might imagine. In fact, they are largely the residue of a forgotten footnote to U.S. military history during the late 1940s and 1950s — a time when civilian and military leaders attempted to imbue the armed forces with religious zeal and purpose.

At issue today, however, is not the place of religion in the military. Rather, it is the official sanction that government gives it. While this matter is given special weight by those who see America in the midst of a modern holy war against terrorism, it has precedent in the nation’s last great quasi-religious crusade — the battle against atheistic communism.

More than 60 years ago, when the Cold War was menacing but still unnamed, U.S. leaders faced the luckless dilemma of picking their own poison. If they demobilized the military after World War II, as their predecessors had done after previous wars, the Soviet threat might become unmanageable. But maintaining a large standing military would betray a national principle. It was considered profoundly un-American to maintain a powerful armed force in a time of peace. According to a long line of patriots, from Samuel Adams on down, standing armies threatened liberty and smothered virtue.

Added to this dilemma was a spiritual wild card. While Americans today would probably define communism as a political or economic philosophy, decision-makers in the 1940s and 1950s viewed it as a quasi-religion. It had prophets and prophecy, missionaries and martyrs, and a belief in the ultimate perfectibility of mankind through inevitable historical process.

National-security analysts fretted over the almost “messianic” devotion of Soviet citizens. Military leaders worried that physical force alone might be insufficient in the emerging Cold War. “Over and over again, gigantic concentrations of physical power have gone down in defeat before a lesser strength propelled by conviction,” warned one brigadier general in 1949. “The Goliaths have perished at the hands of the Davids.”

President Harry S. Truman decided to run the risk of America maintaining a sizable standing military. But to many, his cure looked worse than the disease. In 1938, only one in five servicemen was younger than 21. Ten years later, soldiers under 21 made up more than half the military and accounted for 70 percent of all enlistments. America’s new standing army was regarded as puerile, impressionable and naïve.

Military leaders wondered if they stood on the verge of creating a potential Frankenstein’s monster. Their plan needed a fail-safe. So they decided not to pull the plug on their monster — but to give it a soul instead. To this end, religion became indispensable.

Military leaders vigorously blended the martial with the sacred to foster virtue and create spiritual warriors immune to the siren songs of communism. In the Fort Knox Experiment of 1947, the army toyed with the idea of simultaneously running new recruits through a physical and religious boot camp. Though this proved too blatantly unconstitutional for Army-wide adoption, the “Fort Knox methods” lived on in the Army’s commitment to develop the spiritual side of its troops.

Truman thought so highly of this mission that, one year later, he created the President’s Committee on Religion and Welfare in the Armed Forces, the first presidential commission devoted to religion. Its members designed campaigns to encourage soldiers to attend church; to urge local religious groups to invite servicemen to their congregations; and to revitalize the military chaplaincy.

While the military brass had no stomach for mandatory religious services, it did authorize, beginning in the late 1940s, various “character guidance” programs run by the reorganized chaplaincy. New recruits attended a minimum of six hours of chaplain lectures on such topics as the sacredness of marriage, the relationship between democracy and religion, and the dangerous faith of communism. All other personnel had to attend similar lectures once a month.

Among other things, soldiers learned that in the Cold War, the United States, a “covenant nation” due to its reliance on God, confronted the “demonic nation” of the Soviet Union. In a contest between God and Satan, military leaders bet on the home team.

This was tame compared to the religious programs of the newly independent Air Force. Under Maj. Gen. Charles I. Carpenter, the Air Force project consisted of lay retreats, on-base preaching missions by religious groups and the confiscation of obscene materials.

Carpenter also believed in the power of religion to solve the personal problems of Air Force personnel. Consider one case cited by a U.S. Air Force report. A military surgeon reported treating an airman suffering from a nervous breakdown. The diagnosis: neurosis stemming from religious confusion. The prescription: a session with the base chaplain, who set up a “systematic plan” of religious treatment.

Nor did Carpenter stop there. In late 1948, he struck a deal with the Moody Bible Institute of Science, an evangelical organization devoted to repairing the damage done to religion by Darwinism. Soon, airmen across America and throughout the world were watching films like “God of Creation” and “Duty or Destiny.” The Air Force even provided the representatives of the Moody Institute with a fully crewed B-25. By 1951, nearly 200,000 Air Force personnel were watching Moody films each year.

Nonbelievers like Hall must have existed in the 1950s, or, at the very least, troops uncomfortable with the idea of religious training. But few spoke up. It took a 1962 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to end the 15-year period of officially sanctioned military sacralization.

In the wake of Engel vs. Vitale, the Supreme Court ruling that deemed prayer in public schools unconstitutional, the Washington director of the American Civil Liberties Union brought grievances of “religious indoctrination” directly to Army Sec. Cyrus R. Vance. Vance responded quickly. In March 1963, he ordered Army chaplains to create a new, secular version of character guidance — outside chapels and without sermonizing. The other services did the same.

As long as the United States remains a religious country, there will be religion in the military. And while the outcome of Hall’s lawsuit is uncertain, it has sparked a worthwhile conversation about faith and the uniform.

Understanding why the military was allowed to craft its own religious imprimatur 60 years ago takes no large stretch of the imagination. During an era when the truly religious could not be communists, the truly irreligious could not be Americans. This axiom rang particularly true for those on the front lines of the Cold War.

Those lamenting Hall’s lawsuit today should consider this slice of military history. From Puritan dreams to evangelical rallies, religion has remained a constant force in our national journey — the military’s in particular.

But the official sanctions afforded it have been anything but constant. Few today realize just how much of the military’s current positions toward religion, far from being longtime American attitudes, are merely vestiges from the Cold War era.

Those cheering Hall’s case should appreciate the extent to which the military has grown more secular over the past few decades. Where once the U.S. Air Force supplied airplanes to evangelists, it now officially insists that commanders “not take it upon themselves to change or coercively influence the religious views of subordinates.”

During the struggle against atheistic communism, comments like those of the Army’s Lt. Gen. William Boykin — who in 2004 called the war on terror a battle against “Satan” — were not only common but celebrated. Today, they are decried by the command structure, including President George W. Bush.

Throughout history, the Davids have sometimes slain the Goliaths. But more often, the stronger, better-equipped force prevailed — with or without the blessings of the Almighty.

Maybe this is what Hall means when he says that while he doesn’t believe in God, he does “believe in Plexiglas.” Whether he wanted to or not, Hall may have stumbled on the ultimate form of “coming out” in the military, and this may require the consideration of military leaders, an appreciation for the military’s religiously sanctioned past and perhaps even a decision from the next commander-in-chief.

If nothing else, it would give a new meaning to the policy of “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Jonathan Patrick Herzog is an acting assistant professor of history at Stanford University and a national fellow in the Hoover Institution there. He is working on a book, “The Hammer and the Cross,” exploring how U.S. leaders used religion as a weapon in the early Cold War.



Comment posted November 17, 2008 @ 5:52 am

I guess from a tactical standpoint, its easier to get soldiers to put their life on the line in battle if they think the have their god on their side. I suppose it makes it more justifiable to bomb Afghan and Iraqi targets, killing civilians, if you are fighting a holy war. Although, I can't help but think that injecting religion into anything is a bad idea. The whole idea of faith and blind trust just doe not site well with me. Especially when my life is on the line. I would kind of want the facts and the truth if bullets were whizzing over my head. I applaud Mr. Hall for speaking his mind. A nation of religious and personal freedom should not have an army who thinks it fights for God.

Independent Mind
Comment posted November 17, 2008 @ 7:27 am

Interesting, but not very factual in what the writer tries to get the reader to beleive. NO ONE in the military is forced to go to a service or has to take religious materials. they hold services for those religous beleifs within the ranks. You want to go, go. You don't want to go, don't go.

If Mr. Hall is being treated this way, those who are doing it are not representing what a christian should be at all in their behaviour. However, something about this smells very much lkike the agenda behind getting prayer out of school. If I don't want to pray in school or are offended by someone next to me praying, then noone should be allowed to pray. B.S. At the end of the day, you have a right to not beleive anything you want. It's a gift given to you – free choice. But it is obvious that free choice is trying to be limited by those who don't like what some of the choices are.

There are people who want every aspect of thew world to be secular. This is the agenda here. I see this as limting people's right to worship openly, regardless if they are in the military or not. I guess it is so easy to explain why 90% of the world has this beleif in one form or another, but in true American spirit the 10% try to push their agenda on the rest of us. I can think of a few other examples of this as well……Sounds like your beef is more with these indiviuals Mr. Hall than with the religion itself. I think the interesting question here is that if Mr. Hall had enough backbone and understanding of his own beleifs, why didn't he try to set down and talk to them rathetr than having to sue for something that will no doubt broaden the original perspective. My gut tells me he doesn't have enough sense to seet down and talk to anyone about it. He doesn't have the fortitude to back up his own beleifs.

Independent Mind
Comment posted November 17, 2008 @ 7:49 am

P.S. AJM – We fight for our country, not our religion. Obvious you have never served anything but yourself by your comments. The military are nothing more than PEOPLE. These people have a right to religion. He sounds awful spineless to me. He can’t convincingly engage, explain and validate his own beliefs? Most people in the military are mature enough to handle differing opinions and mindsets. You have a way of getting past things like that when that person has to cover your backside when things start getting dicey. So it shows me he doesn’t have the convictions that support his own belief. He has to have someone else argue it for him in court.

A Reader
Comment posted November 17, 2008 @ 1:16 pm

I like it when people give names like “Independent.” That's a signal. They aren't “Independent”, and we can even question their “Mind” if that's included. But, we can read them anyway – if we feel like it.
I read this person's blogs here. This guy (yes, guy) is an intelligent religious conservative. No independence included in his opinions, or mind.

Comment posted November 17, 2008 @ 4:46 pm

You're right, which is why when those infidels who pretend to be Christians complain about my 5 times a day pausing to pull out my prayer rug, take off my shoes and pray to Allah should just shut up or join me in the peaceful religion that makes a mockery of their shame of a bathroom pissing on God. There is no God but Allah, hnbp, and Mohammed is his prophet.
And those who complain about the snake handlers and strychnine drinkers should butt out as well.

Independent Mind
Comment posted November 18, 2008 @ 10:09 am

A Reader – I appreciate your candid comments about me. Male – Yes – Conservative – For the most part, but not on all lines. Religious – Somewhat, but probably not how you think if you think religion equates to a chapel, or synagogue or attend a group function.

I grew up abroad as a child, lived on many different continents. So my life preview has been far more extensive than many my elder. I grew up an Army brat, and was also in the military myself, so my knowledge of this issue within the military is not without solid insight. Americans do not understand how many other cultures in the world work, have never REALLY had to be emersed in them. So what you call a conservative, the rest of the world simply calls ” There is no Gray area between right and wrong” on certain matters. Doesn't matter the culture, doesn't matter the skin color or continent you come from. It's that simple. Americans are KING of the “There is no right or wrong”…..or the…”Well, your both right”……

The point here is it is obvious that if Mr. Hall was treated this way it is wrong. It wasn't the religion that treated him this way, it was the people who did it. But yet we find this as being a perfect opportunity to attack the Faith itself, rather than the people that perpetrated it upon him. Explain that to me? Smacks of bait and switch on Mr. Hall's part if he is truly support and behind this law suit. It doesn't jive with what happened to me. Truth is, most people in the military could care less what your religion is, and you don't even have to state what it is if you insist upon it while enlisting.

Americans are always trying to lay blame at someone's feet, it is a sticking point in the International community about us as people. It's quite shameful actually. But it is true none the less, we take no personal responsibility.
Rather than concede there are differences, and suck it up and move out, Mr. Hall has taken this to a whole new level. I do not beleive having a secular military is a good thing if it means those who have a specific belief cannot observe that belief openly. Regardless of how this article paints it as WARRING FOR OUR GOD…..that is so not how it is painted to us that were doing the battling for this country.

A Reader – I don't think this is a “Conservative” or “Liberal” issue. There are plenty of religious beleivers of one sort or another on both sides. this to me is about the good for one outweighing the good for the many. Where do it stop? Not one is willing to touch that question b/c they already know the answer. Some will not stop until there is no ability to worship at all…why? Because they don't beleive, so neither should you. Would that include you? Probably not, you sound like a common sense guy, but you quickly discount those that do hold that level of animosity.

At the end of the day, I may not agree with what you say, but I would die defending your ability to say it.

If that makes me “Conservative” or Not “Independent” enough on this issue, I'm fine with that. I will sleep just fine knowing I stand for something I believe in with all my heart and soul and that I am standing behind my prinicple that I will not impose my beliefs on you, nor shall you impede upon my ability to worship as well. Pretty simple right?

P.S. – I get paid really, really well for my mind incase you were worried about it's soundness.

Comment posted December 1, 2008 @ 1:03 pm

Boykin's comments were “decried by the command structure, including President George W. Bush.” Mr Herzog, please do your homework After Boykin's heavy handed proselytizing comments in uniform which merited a section 8 discharge, he was given his third star and put in charge as the senior military officer of Abu Graib, Gitmo, rendition, and torture for the Bush regime. The Air Force Academy during the Vietnam war had 6 mainline chaplains. It now has 6 mainline chaplains plus 12 evangelical chaplains–an increase of 300%. Indeed, religion in the military has changed, but in the opposite direction as you describe in your article.

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Comment posted January 29, 2009 @ 1:05 pm

Thanks for the info. May God have mercy on us all.

Cindy P Dennis
Comment posted February 4, 2009 @ 12:13 am

Excellent, entertaining, useful reading, Thanks !!

DotA 6.60
Comment posted February 12, 2009 @ 11:35 pm

Yes. I think the Military should be open. Not all people are believers and we should respect them.

DotA 6.59c
Comment posted February 14, 2009 @ 5:19 am

NO ONE in the military is forced to go to a service or has to take religious materials. they hold services for those religous beleifs within the ranks. You want to go, go. You don't want to go, don't go.

DotA 6.59c
Comment posted February 14, 2009 @ 5:32 am

Yes, that is right.

Christian Church Pastor
Comment posted April 23, 2009 @ 4:28 pm

Military service puts peoples life on the line. Those who are going to die in battle are going to be thinking a lot more about their religion than those who are out of harms way. Although the military is not a very good institution for training people about religion, it should be cooperative with those who are.

Christian Church Pastor
Comment posted April 23, 2009 @ 11:28 pm

Military service puts peoples life on the line. Those who are going to die in battle are going to be thinking a lot more about their religion than those who are out of harms way. Although the military is not a very good institution for training people about religion, it should be cooperative with those who are.

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