Onward Christian Soldiers

Over the past few years I have become vaguely aware of a strong religious current running through the US military that more or less parallels the rise of the religious right in American politics. At first blush, this seems unremarkable. Whether as handmaidens of power or agents of empire, military organizations have throughout history mostly been conservative institutions and aligned, in spirit if not soul, with institutional religions. Yet despite this alignment, beneath the surface there is often a tempering profanity that borders on irreligious. The pragmatism and fatalism often engendered by war can have this effect, one which Paul Fussell brilliantly illuminated in The Great War and Modern Memory, Wartime, and elsewhere.

In at least some quarters of the American military, however, this tempering appears to have been lost and replaced with evangelical zeal. My first whiff of this came last year, when I posted on the Army’s euphemistic “spiritual fitness test.” What was a whiff became a stink after reading Jeff Sharlet’s “Jesus Killed Mohammad: The Crusade for a Christian Military,” an article which I somehow missed when it appeared in 2009. What Sharlet describes is a fairly recent development, one which was just getting under way when I was commissioned as an Army officer in 1987. While I sensed that something was changing over the next few years, I was unaware of the official impetus behind it:

The turning point occurred in the waning days of the Reagan Administration, when regulatory revisions helped create the fundamentalist stronghold in today’s military. A long-standing rule had apportioned chaplains according to the religious demographics of the military as a whole (i.e., if surveys showed that 10 percent of soldiers were Presbyterian, then 10 percent of the chaplains would be Presbyterian) but required that all chaplains be trained to minister to troops of any faith.

Starting in 1987, however, Protestant denominations were lumped together simply as “Protestant”; moreover, the Pentagon began accrediting hundreds of evangelical and Pentecostal “endorsing agencies,” allowing graduates of fundamentalist Bible colleges—which often train clergy to view those from other faiths as enemies of Christ—to fill up nearly the entire allotment for Protestant chaplains. Today, more than two thirds of the military’s 2,900 active-duty chaplains are affiliated with evangelical or Pentecostal denominations. “In my experience,” Morton says, “eighty percent of the Protestant chaplaincy self-identifies as conservative and/or evangelical.”

The most zealous among the new generation of fundamentalist chaplains didn’t join to serve the military; they came to save its soul.

One such zealot, Sharlet recounts, is Lieutenant Colonel Gary Hensley, who was for a time the chief Army chaplain for all of Afghanistan. Apparently not satisfied with saving the soul of the American military, Hensley thought it would be a good idea to have bibles printed in local languages and distributed to Afghans. In this video, the bibles are on display and Hensley is heard saying: “The special forces guys – they hunt men basically. We do the same things as Christians, we hunt people for Jesus. We do, we hunt them down.”

Hensley’s superiors wisely thought this was a bad idea and ordered the bibles destroyed. They were burned. As sometimes occurs in firefighting, one incendiary was used to prevent another. The Marines, seemingly always a step ahead of the Army, had a better idea: have troops teach Afghans the “true” nature of Islam. No word on how that is going.

Though there were calls for Hensley’s court-martial after these incidents, they were ignored. Hensley was transferred and made chaplain for the Army’s Battle Command Training Program. In that ironic position, he served with distinction and was awarded the Order of Titus which “highlights the great importance of realistic, doctrinally-guided combat ministry training in ensuring the delivery of prevailing religious support to the American Soldier.”

I’m not sure what that means but am comforted to know the award is “non-denominational.”

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