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Original Essays

Onward Christian Soldiers

by D. Michael Lindsay
  1. Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite
    $2.25 Used Hardcover add to wishlist
    "[Lindsay] is a sympathetic observer who understands that evangelicalism is as reformist as any other movement that has ascended to power in America....This important work should be required reading for anyone who wants to opine publicly on what American evangelicals are really up to." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
In June of 1954, Colorado Springs beat out 582 other sites as the location for the new Air Force Academy. In recent decades, Colorado Springs has become this mecca of American evangelicalism. Today, over 100 evangelical groups are headquartered in the town of just 360,000. Gradually, the Academy became a place where evangelicals felt quite at home, as the evangelicalism of the local community inched onto campus. Developments at the Air Force Academy mirror wider trends across the U.S. military. Over the last forty years, the armed forces have been infused with a noticeably evangelical fervor.

This has become particularly important as the U.S. has deployed large numbers of troops to Iraq and Afghanistan. How does the U.S. military — which is the most public face of the American government in these Muslim countries — reflect evangelical religious sensibilities? And what does that mean for U.S. policy in the Muslim world? Now that we have Army General David Petraeus's report from Iraq, it is worth examining the extent of evangelical influence within the military elite. For the past five years, I did just that, interviewing evangelicals who have occupied top posts within the military in the post-Vietnam era. I discovered that America's military has the most evangelical feel of all major institutions in our society today. For some, that is the source of great comfort, but for others, grave concern.

A growing number of Air Force Academy cadets have expressed displeasure with the hard-to-measure yet palpable influence of American evangelicalism on campus. Back in 2004, 30 percent of cadets said that they were victims of unwanted proselytizing. Shortly thereafter, the Washington-based group Americans United for Separation of Church and State issued a fourteen-page report charging "systematic and pervasive religious bias and intolerance at the highest levels of the Academy command structure." As public outcry grew, Congress demanded a report on the religious climate at the Academy. It concluded that evangelical Academy leaders had, in fact, demonstrated religious insensitivity, but not outright intolerance. The report recommended nine initiatives for improving the religious atmosphere on campus, including the launch of a program called "RSVP" — Respecting the Spiritual Values of all People.

Nonetheless, the military remains a particularly comfortable environment for evangelicals. They began to wield influence on Bill Brehm's watch. First recruited to the Pentagon in 1964, Brehm was one of the "Whiz Kids" — the young, smart analysts who were hand-picked to advise Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara on the conduct of the Vietnam War. As the U.S. drew down its forces in Vietnam, Brehm, who was serving as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Manpower, was charged with leading the military's transition from a conscription to an all-volunteer force. One of the most important — albeit unexpected, even for Brehm — results of this transition was that the military became more conservative, from the top brass all the way down to the enlisted corps. John Hamre, who served as Deputy Secretary of Defense from 1997 to 2000 and now heads the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told me, "When we shifted...to an all-volunteer force, [the military pulled] increasingly from a segment of society that had strong cultural affinity to the military lifestyle and the values that are enshrined in the military community. So over the last 25 years, the military has become far more evangelical [as well as] more Southern, more rural, more conservative." Indeed, evangelicalism has become the prevailing religious force in the U.S. military in the post-Vietnam era.

In addition to changes in recruiting patterns, the disciplined military lifestyle is attractive to the evangelical worldview. Respect for authority and abstemiousness are ideals that resonate with evangelicals. Furthermore, the American evangelical penchant for fusing religious and patriotic fervor — which can be traced to Billy Sunday in the nineteenth century through Billy Graham in the twentieth — fits with the military mindset. Accompanying this marriage between military service and evangelical commitment were important structural changes in the military's chaplaincy corps. In the post-Vietnam era, evangelical denominations have commissioned thousands of military chaplains, which has led to an over-representation of evangelical chaplains relative to the religious makeup of the military as a whole.

Evangelicalism has also made inroads among the military elite. In 1973 Brehm, then Assistant Secretary of Defense, noticed that "the loneliest people in the Pentagon" were the military chiefs of the four services. Over dinner in suburban Washington one evening, Brehm said to me, "They're at the top of the heap. Their entire careers have built up to that point. So who do they talk to when they need to cry? Where do they go?" Brehm took it upon himself to arrange a regular meeting for the five senior military officers at the Pentagon. They would meet for breakfast — each member taking a turn as host for the group — and have an open discussion during which participants could share whatever was on their mind. They also set aside time for prayer. According to Brehm, out of the dozen or so individuals who served in those posts between 1973 and 1981, only two chose not to attend. In years since, more fellowship groups have sprung up, involving some of the military's top brass. These groups include leaders from various federal agencies and bureaus, but they have been particularly effective at reaching senior military officers.

Some fear that evangelical fellowship groups instill a "crusading" spirit in military leaders, fueling a conviction that they have been, as historian Anne C. Loveland has written, "commissioned by God to bring the rest of the world to accept their belief." While this may be the case within some pockets of the U.S. military, I did not find that crusading spirit among the military leaders I spoke to. Most of these regular gatherings are free-ranging discussions, or as Dalton put it, chances to "shoot the bull." Although sessions did include times for prayer and reflection on a passage from scripture, participants across the board said they were more personal and devotional in nature than programmatic or polemical.

Concern about evangelicals' crusading zeal arises from the sense of duty they feel to talk about their faith with others. While many evangelicals I interviewed regard that as innocuous or simply friendly conversation, some non-evangelicals perceive it as imposing or intolerant. Tensions about proselytizing have come to the fore in the chaplaincy corps. A "great strain," one source told me, has emerged within the military chaplaincy. "Almost all of the chaplains that now come in the door are evangelical, and almost all of the senior chaplains that run the place are mainline Protestant." These two groups have different priorities. Evangelicals focus on evangelistic outreach, while mainline Protestants are mainly concerned about ministering to the faithful. When they were fewer in number, evangelical chaplains (along with the other military chaplains) pursued a strategy of "cooperative pluralism" that minimized sectarian differences. The unstated policy was that you could evangelize among those without strong faith, but not among those active in another denomination. As evangelical chaplains have grown in both numbers and prominence, though, many have moved away from this strategy, which has caused alarm in some circles. Rudy de Leon, another Deputy Secretary of Defense under President Clinton, told me that there is a "long tradition of the military community staying intact [because of shared] respect for each other....The community has to respect the twenty-year old kid who drinks beer and smokes cigarettes and likes to jump out of planes [just as it] has to respect the 27-year old who is...very much...faith-focused. The responsibility is to make sure it's an environment where both are allowed to work to the best of their abilities." Where evangelical fervor has merged with military might, it has been because civilian and military leaders have encouraged close relations between the two.

When asked how their military service relates to their evangelical faith, everyone I interviewed made the same initial comment: Working in the military or the defense industry is not inherently in conflict with evangelical Christianity. But beyond that basic point they held a range of opinions. Rudy de Leon saw it as a straightforward matter: "I had no trouble trying to reconcile the oath of office...with my weekly affirmation of the Apostle's Creed. To me...they were not in conflict with each other." Others, like Lou Giuliano, who served as Chairman and CEO of ITT Industries, a major defense contractor, differentiated between acts at the individual level and activities undertaken by the state. He said, "As long as it's a legitimate purpose of our government, then I wouldn't have a problem participating in it." When pressed about what constituted legitimate military action, he relied on Augustine's just war theory. As the Bush administration considered the possibility of a pre-emptive strike on Iraq in late 2002 and early 2003, evangelical leaders appealed to just war theory to explain their positions on the subject. Richard Land, the head of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, drafted an open letter from several evangelical luminaries that justified a pre-emptive strike against Saddam Hussein according to the principles of just war theory. We now know that many of those arguments hung on false claims — that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, that the 9/11 attackers had links to Hussein's regime. However, not all evangelical leaders arrived at the same conclusion as Land and others. Miroslav Volf, a well-regarded evangelical theologian at Yale Divinity School, told Christianity Today in September of 2002, "Our Lord Jesus Christ said, 'If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, you turn him the other also.' But President Bush, who claims to be following Jesus Christ, says, 'According to the gospel of Cheney and Rumseld, if you think someone wants to strike you on the right cheek hit him as hard as you can.'"

The evangelical leaders I interviewed were uniformly convinced that just war principles were essential for Christians to sanction military action. Beyond that, however, some were more circumspect. Thomas Phillips, for example served as CEO of Raytheon, another defense contractor, for many years. He told me, "I got a lot of comfort out of the fact that Raytheon was entirely in defensive things....We had no attack weapons at all." After Phillips retired, Raytheon acquired subsidiaries that produced offensive weaponry. "If it [had happened during my tenure], I think I would have told the board I couldn't do it," Phillips commented to me. John Hamre, the Deputy Secretary of Defense under President Clinton, said that many of his liberal colleagues would "badger" him when they learned of his faith commitments. He responded to them by saying, "Jesus wasn't a pacifist...I don't think he'd be looking to drop bombs on people all the time, but on the other hand there were times when he confronted evil and he did something about it." Sitting in his office one summer afternoon, Hamre turned me to me and said, "There are, unfortunately, evil people in the world that have to be confronted with force, and my prayerful good wishes aren't going to change them."

Although there are many evangelical leaders I interviewed who sense some kind of tension between their faith and military action, some notable leaders did not. Lieutenant General William "Jerry" Boykin is one of them. The outspoken evangelical, who retired a few months ago, worked for many years in military intelligence and counterterrorism. In fact, Boykin is a highly-decorated officer who has been involved in nearly every special operations initiative that made the papers — from the 1980 failed Iranian hostage rescue attempt to the mission to apprehend Manuel Noriega in 1989. I met Boykin for drinks one evening at the Ritz-Carlton in Pentagon City. The burly general showed up in a Hawaiian shirt and cargo shorts. As his military experience would suggest, Boykin is an intense, hard-driving individual. As deep as his love for the U.S. military may be, Boykin is even more passionate about his faith. He converted to Christianity at age 22 and worships at an Assemblies of God church in the Washington area. "I've never had any ethical or theological issues with being a soldier," Boykin said to me. "I think that being a soldier is in fact every bit compatible with being a Christian. So long as we are serving in a democracy, so long as we are serving in a just war." With the exception of the Spanish-American War of 1898, Boykin believes the United States has participated in only just wars.

Boykin commanded the Delta Force mission in 1993 that was charged with tracking down militia leader Mohamed Farrah Aidid in Somalia. In what became known as the "Black Hawk Down" incident, Somali guerilla fighters killed 18 American soldiers and downed two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters by rocket-propelled grenades. Boykin recounted the episode to me:

Right before I told them to launch that operation, I bowed down and prayed as I always did, for God to go with us, keep us wrapped in his arms. Eighteen hours later, 15 of my men were dead, and I stood and watched it on a little black and white television as they showed [the Somali militia] dragging the bodies of my men through the streets of Mogadishu. When they brought a 5-ton truck back on that airfield, it was stacked up, dead on bottom, and the wounded on top of them...blood poured out the back of it like water....That hit me like an arrow in the heart...I said, "There is no God; God does not exist....If God really existed, he would not have let this happen."...But as I said, "There is no God," I felt the Holy Spirit saying to me, "If there's no God, [then] there's no hope."...I opened my Bible, and I promise you, I looked down and this is what it said, "Trust in the Lord with all thy heart and lean not to thine own understanding."...There's no question it was divine confirmation.

Boykin subsequently related the incident to several evangelical church groups, and in late 2003 NBC News and the Los Angeles Times revealed a series of other comments the three-star general had made in recent years. Often appearing in uniform without a disclaimer that his comments did not represent the views of the U.S. military, Boykin would present the Battle of Mogadishu in explicitly religious terms. He would say, "I knew my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol." Boykin framed the Mogadishu battle as a spiritual battle, stirring outrage across the Muslim world. Boykin eventually clarified his comments to say that he did not regard the "spiritual battle" between religions, but between good and evil — with "the evil" being acts of individuals, not an entire religion. To this day, however, Boykin is the target of dozens of Islamic websites that call for his assassination.

As we sat in the Ritz-Carlton lobby bar in 2005, Boykin said that he still prayed for his enemies in Mogadishu every day. Citing a passage in the New Testament where Jesus told his followers to pray for their enemies, Boykin also said, "I prayed for Saddam Hussein today, as I was running on the treadmill: that God will convict him and save him. Does that sound crazy to you?" Other evangelical military leaders, however, called Boykin's comments "outrageous" and former Secretary of State James Baker, who is also an evangelical Christian, disagreed with Boykin by saying, "Islam is a noble religion, properly practiced."

Yet it is a mistake to assume that American evangelicals offer simply jingoistic support for the military. Senator Mark Hatfield of Oregon was one of the most recognized evangelicals in Washington for many years. He was also a vigorous opponent of the Vietnam War. More recently, in 2005 when President Bush gave the commencement address at Calvin College — a strong evangelical institution in the heart of conservative western Michigan — one-third of the faculty signed a full-page ad protesting the president's policy on Iraq.

In fact, most of the evangelical military leaders I spoke to are very concerned about wielding their influence appropriately. Rudy de Leon explained, "I didn't see my government service as an expression of my faith, but [it provided] the foundation" for how he approached his work. With nearly three decades' experience in the defense world, de Leon has held several elite posts within the military. A self-described evangelical Christian, the former deputy defense secretary told me that his faith was part of the personal background that he brought to the job of running the Pentagon, but he rarely engaged his evangelical faith explicitly. It shaped ethical convictions and workplace relations, but he did not see it as part of a larger military battle between the U.S. and the Muslim world.

Changes in recruiting patterns have undoubtedly helped make evangelicalism more prominent within the armed services. But the major sources of evangelical influence in the military have been individual efforts by high-ranking military officers. By forming groups that provide informal forms of fellowship and support for fellow believers in higher circles, evangelicals encourage one another to bear witness to their faith by giving public speeches (sometimes in uniform), attending evangelical chapel services, and talking about their faith with the media. They create interpersonal bonds of friendship that invariably influence professional relations. It is this kind of high-level networking that gives evangelicalism real power, not just in the military but in every aspect of American life.

U.S. forces have, in many cases, become our country's public face to the world's 1.3 billion Muslims. As military leaders like General Petraeus lead an army of mainly Christian soldiers into battle against violent extremists — and into battle for the hearts and minds of ordinary Muslims — the evangelicalization of the military presents a diplomatic challenge. Which kind of evangelicalism prevails within the armed forces — the cosmopolitan version of Rudy de Leon or the more forceful faith of Jerry Boykin — will play a key role in determining whether the U.S. is ultimately successful in Iraq and across the Muslim world.

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D. Michael Lindsay is a member of the sociology faculty at Rice University where he is also the Faculty Associate of Leadership Rice and Assistant Director of the Center on Race, Religion, and Urban Life. He is the author of two books, both with George Gallup, Jr., and has written many scholarly and popular essays. He has received several awards for his writing, teaching, and speaking and writes a regular column for Rev! magazine. spacer

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