Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Why Religion in the Military Matters

Much has been written, both in the past and recently, about the spread of aggressive evangelical Christianity within the US military. As my colleague Steve Saideman has pointed out, the Air Force Academy has long been known as a less-than-tolerant environment. Now word comes that the problem may have spread to West Point, primary service academy for the US Army, as well.

Much of the criticism here is rightly directed at the Constitutional violation, and therefore the violation of soldiers' and officers' oaths to defend that Constitution, involved in aggressive proselytizing within the services. There is a bitter irony in a military working to defend freedoms for all Americans - including freedom of religion - yet squashing that same freedom within its own ranks.

But there is another, perhaps even more dangerous, consequence to the spread of a particular religious viewpoint within the armed forces. Different religious perspectives, even (perhaps especially) within Christianity, have very different views on the role of the military and the appropriateness of the use of force in general. Broadly speaking, the more a military becomes infused with a particular point of view, the more that point of view will come to shape its decisions, its directions, and the kinds of wars it will or won't fight.

This is particularly concerning when the viewpoint in question is the aggressive strain of evangelical Christianity that seems to have attracted so many adherents within the Air Force and Army. At issue here are more than views about salvation and the inherent infallibility of the Bible. This particular strain of Christianity has very definite views about war and the use of force. Some examples:

• The Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution in support of the Iraq War in 2003, specifically citing Romans 13 ("But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he [the governing authority] does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer.")

• Pentacostal Publishing House, the publication arm of United Pentacostal Church International, has published Will Islam Rule the World? Will the Antichrist Be a Muslim?, a book which asks questions more rhetorical than analytical.

• Sarah Palin, an Assembly of God church member, famously said in a speech that the Iraq war was "a task that is from God," arguing that the invasion of Iraq was part of "God's plan".

Many similar examples can be found pertaining to Israel, the Muslim world, and Iran, just as a number of years ago similar preachers railed against "godless Communism" and the evils of the Soviet Union. I've no doubt that these folks are quite sincere in their views, and that their theology and their politics are logically linked.

I'm not interested in arguing whether these folks are right or wrong, either in their theology or their politics. But it is clear - from examples like these as well as from the widespread use by these and similar churches of "spiritual warfare" imagery - that this is a religious view with a particularly accepting, even embracing, stance towards the use of force as a foreign policy instrument. These are churches, in other words, perfectly happy to go to war (the real, not the spiritual, kind) if the cause is deemed to be "righteous".

Why does this matter? Because a military whose leaders are strongly influenced by this point of view is going to lean more assertively towards preemptive, preventive, and even aggressive wars. They will be quicker to support political leadership that, say, wants to attack Iran over its nuclear weapons program. They will be more accepting than the broader American public (since these are minority religious views within the US) of getting the US involved militarily in various spots around the world, in support of an agenda (e.g. Israel) that may be more theological than practical.

But doesn't the US military answer to elected civilian control? If they take orders from the government (as Romans 13 says they must), why does it matter what their own views are? While this is true, and an important component of our governing system, the military brass can still wield substantial influence over decisions of war and peace. They can do so in particular by setting the parameters of the possible and the impossible. If the US military is in favor of attacking Iran, they will draw up plans, acquire weapons, and train forces in support of that mission. If they're not in favor of such an attack, they can render it very difficult by not having those plans, those weapons, or that training in place.

The upshot here is that a military dominated by a theology that supports the aggressive use of force is, all other things being equal, more likely to end up actually using that force. That's a political decision being made for theological reasons - on the basis of theology not shared by most Americans. And that, even more than the Constitutional violations of oath-sworn officers, is a serious danger that must be addressed in America's standing military.

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