The Apocalyptic Visions of the Left



14 comments
by Matt Sutton

While not busy watching the libertarians
skewer Harvey for daring to give us his take on a new book’s strengths and weaknesses (which last time I checked is what you are supposed to do in a book review, right libertarians?) or witnessing the continuing implosion of my fantasy football team (thanks for nothing this week Cedric Benson) I am finally catching up on some old reading. In the May issue of Harper’s Jeff Sharlet (of The Family fame) has a fascinating article entitled Jesus Killed Mohammed.” In it he examines the continuing problem of hyper-Christian rhetoric and ideology in the U.S. military, which is a particularly troubling phenomenon in the context of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. I have two problems with the article; one petty and one more significant. First, the petty. He writes:

“Every man and woman in the military swears an oath to defend the Constitution. To most of them, evangelicals included, that oath is as sacred as Scripture. For the fundamentalist front, though, the Constitution is itself a blueprint for a Christian nation. ‘The idea of separation of church and state?’ an Air Force Academy senior named Bruce Hrabak says. ‘There’s this whole idea in America that it’s in the Constitution, but it’s not.’” Sharlet then condescendingly points out: “That’s technically true; it’s in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights.”

This, of course is both inaccurate and not the issue Hrabak is raising here. As all readers of this blog—and Jeff Sharlet—are well aware, the establishment and the free exercise clauses have been interpreted in different ways over the centuries. The First Amendment may have meant “separation of church and state” in Thomas Jefferson’s mind, at least when he was writing to Danbury Baptists, but it has not always meant that and it has certainly never been consistently interpreted that way by American courts. Americans United for the Separation of Church and State can happily provide legions of violations of the supposed “high wall of separation.” Hrabak is not an idiot in making the claim above; Sharlet does him a disservice by not unpacking his statement in the context of the culture wars and competing views of the American past. It is not as if we good humanist liberals all agree on the meaning of the First Amendment
while the fundies keep making stupid sh*t up.

The larger question (problem?) I have with Sharlet’s work is the representativeness of the people he profiles. He certainly
finds tantalizing handfuls of rogue nuts and dozens of their asinine statements. Furthermore, he rightly points out that evangelical and conservative Catholic proselytizing of Jews, Muslims, and secularists in the military is a serious problem that needs to be taken seriously. But I am not sure that his evidence is sufficient to build the case that a secret group of behind-the-scenes and off-the-record fundamentalists lurking in the hallways of power (in Congress in his previous work, in the military here) will soon dominate the nation. Maybe he is right, but I suspect that most of the people, most of the time—even soldiers and former Republican presidents—know better than to tell Muslims that Jesus killed Mohammad. If they don’t than we really are in for a world of trouble.

14 comments:

Manlius at: November 16, 2009 at 5:40 PM said...

Good post, Matt. Sad how people on both the left and the right find it easier to propogate fear than to promote mutual understanding.

Jeff Sharlet at: November 17, 2009 at 9:34 AM said...

Matt -- were the people I write about the only examples of this theological ideology -- if there no other problems besides General Bob Caslen, General Donald Wurster, General Robert Van Antwerp, General Johnny Weida, General Jack Catton, General Mike Gould, General Cecil Richardson, General Pete Sutton, General Jerry Boykin, Colonel Jim Brown, Colonel Bob Young, Colonel Gary Hensley, and Colonel Greg Metzgar -- I'm confident most thoughtful officers would agree that this is a plenty big enough problem, indeed. Many do -- there are plenty of great officers, including self-described fundamentalists, who see this as a major issue for the military.

But the fact is the problem isn't limited to the names above, as Kristen Leslie of Yale Divinity has documented at the Air Force Academy and as the 14,000 active duty military personnel who've turned to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation can attest. Certainly, the attendees at this past weekend's Faith and Arms conference, cosponsored by Yale Div and Yale Law, see a bigger problem. Scholars, lawyers, and officers came together to discuss a military that at best has lost its constitutional bearing.

That's not an "apocalyptic" charge, and you badly misrepresent my argument, and those of many others, when you say that. Nor is it a charge being leveled by the left; I don't know the politics of the many officers and enlisted personnel who are concerned about this issue because they don't talk politics. But it's a safe bet that some of these generals, colonels, majors, and cadets aren't exactly of the left.

So much for your "significant" charge. On to the petty. Yes, of course you're correct that separation is a fraught issue without clear or continuous definition. And I would be the last person to call Bruce Hrabak an idiot. (I think Bruce, with whom I remain friends, would agree.) As it happens, I wrote a great deal more about him. He was one of the most thoughtful, interesting, and interested fundamentalists I've interviewed. But even that won't suffice when he's given bad information, such as that found in the work of the historical fantasist David Barton. Barton, as I suspect you know, does not represent one side of a debate; he makes things up. And yet Barton has become standard fare for many military personnel, who, with the best of intentions and genuine historical curiosity, fall prey to this radical disinformation. Again, this is neither an apocalyptic charge nor a leftist one; it is the same charge made by Martin Cook, one of the nation's leading military ethicists, on the faculty of the Naval War College, hardly a bastion of leftist paranoia.

Nowhere do I suggest that most of the people think it's appropriate to say Jesus Killed Muhammad. Bruce Hrabak certainly wouldn't. I presented that story as an extreme example of what can go wrong, the outgrowth of an ideology that thinks endorsement of Mel Gibson's Passion is appropriate, that brings extreme anti-Muslim activists to our war colleges, and that holds that Islam is not entitled to freedom of religion because it's not a religion but a political system. THAT view, btw, is incredibly common in the service academies, pervasive even.

Last but not least, Matt, a question for you: On what basis do you question the representativeness of my article? I spent a year interviewing well over a hundred active duty military members, reading correspondence from many more, visiting West Point, Annapolis, the Air Force Academy, and Ft. Riley, interviewing representatives of the Officers Christian Fellowship, Campus Crusade, and other parachurch military ministries, and reading everything I could get my hands on, including all the works recommended by sources such as Hrabak.

That's my evidence. What's yours?

You'll forgive me for taking a slightly sharp tone, I hope. Honest conservative debate is always welcome. But this see-no-evil kind of approach strikes me as a kind of liberal condescension.

Edward J Blum at: November 17, 2009 at 9:36 AM said...

wow, the blog is becoming quite the debating forum! just in time for the AHA symposium on blogs and religious history!!!

Wayne at: November 17, 2009 at 10:16 AM said...

Interesting post Matt.

Fundamentalists began their mission to the military by placing chaplains during WWII. An impetus for this was a belief in a prophecy from Matthew 24:6. A number of fundamentalists worried that the pacifist movement prominent within mainline Protestantism may compromise the war effort.

Additionally, prophecies circulated among premillennialists throughout the 1930s of the impending apocalypse. Their predictions included an alliance between the Soviet Union and Germany as well as the reconstitution of the Roman empire. Those prophecies clearly were constructed from contemporary world events. (Sorry, Matt, if I am stealing your AHA thunder.)

Since Islamic militancy is currently in the headlines, I wonder if there is, or will be, a corresponding restructuring of premillennial prophecies?

Sharlet's article did not contain any references to premillennial eschatology. Fundamentalism originally stressed the utter corruption of humanity preceding Christ's second coming. His depiction, by contrast, emphasizes a fundamentalism that is permeated with chauvinistic nationalism without an impending apocalypse.

Matt Sutton at: November 17, 2009 at 11:59 AM said...

Jeff—I appreciate your response and am one of the zillions of people who happily purchased The Family and who very much enjoys your writing.

I study fundamentalist political conspiracy thinking. I am sure you would not be surprised by the long list of stupid things and outrageous statements that fundamentalists have strung together—-in every decade since FDR—-espoused by “liberals,” “secularists” and “humanists” that totally distort the views of the vast, vast majority of liberals and in many cases even the very liberals who they are quoting. For this reason, I am suspicious when those critical of fundamentalism do something similar.

This is not to say—-as I mentioned in the blog—-that there are not real problems with faith issues in the military and that military brass MUST do a better job correcting the holy-warrior culture present in the US military. This is, of course, particularly true of the Air Force Academy.

Furthermore, I have no doubts about the thoroughness of your research. My concern was simply that if you title an article “Jesus Killed Mohammad,” I am not sure it is appropriate to come back and say that the title does not really represent your argument or most of the people you are profiling in that article. The title has the potential of evoking some of the same kinds of broad-brush apocalyptic fear-mongering that fundamentalists trade in. Nevertheless, I know a good title when I see one, and I certainly see one here!

You argue: “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.”

You are simply painting here with too broad a brush for me, when you link Campus Crusade, et. al., with the preceding paragraphs on “Jesus Killed Mohammad” and Mel Gibson’s Passion. Phrases like “ambassadors for Christ in uniform” need to be understood in the long context of missionary efforts by groups such as Campus Crusade (see John Turner’s excellent book here), and the history of the chaplaincy, as well as in the context of the current wars where you put them. My concern is that you are reading a whole lot of standard, probably acceptable religious activity and language through the lens of the “Jesus Killed Mohammad,” Mel Gibson-loving nut-jobs—and if you aren’t doing this, I suspect that your readers are. I feel like a touchy-feely Obama-ite, but I think that the more the fundamentalists and their critics engage with each other—-the more the Harper’s readers of the world meet the real Bruce Hrabaks of the world—-the better off everyone will be.

John G. Turner at: November 17, 2009 at 12:58 PM said...

Jeff, this inspires me to get your book off my shelf and into my hands. It's a fascinating article, and it was hard for me not to think about the issues you raised without connecting it to the recent events at Fort Hood. In particular, I was struck by the military's vociferous defense of religious pluralism after the shootings. The conservative blogosphere is apoplectic about the military putting "political correctness" ahead of security. So on the one hand, I read about evangelical fanatics in your article and then read about military apostles of religious diversity at roughly the same time. Can both of those be true?

Is what we have a minority of committed evangelicals amidst a still secular and diverse military? In other words, I share Matt's concern that the article partly overstates and sensationalizes the evidence.

Like Matt I imagine, I haven't spent time studying the problem, so all I can do is try to analyze the evidence you present. That makes the above paragraph a hunch rather than a scholarly critique.

I agree with Matt re: the title, and I also thought the Petraeus quote is more-or-less a non-issue (or at least doesn't raise any constitutional concerns). Commander-in-Chief Barack Obama, after all, could provide a positive blurb for any religious book he chose. And Rick Warren's book? I agree that is nudging closer across the line, but can military officers only give their troops secular books?

That said, keep holding evangelicals' feet to the fire. It did occur to me that the obvious solution to the problem was more Presbyterian chaplains. As a Presbyterian, I think it's highly unlikely we'd take a strong enough stand on anything to be offensive.

Randall at: November 17, 2009 at 8:02 PM said...

Wow. Great discussion/debate.

A few of my cents. I do think Harper's has tilted toward Mencken-esque hyperbole when it comes to all things evangelical. Lewis Lapham's scathing editorials, which I loved to read, dripped with sarcasm and painted pictures of fundamentalist lunacy, Christian Right tomfoolery, and Bushie zealotry that seemed like literary fun, and less like real-live fundamentalism. Made for a great read nonetheless.

I'm still bummed that Harper's never printed the official University of Florida public hygiene note I passed along for the readings section. (The document warned of the perils of public defecation and urination on the grounds of married housing property.)

James Kabala at: November 17, 2009 at 8:57 PM said...

"Fundamentalists began their mission to the military by placing chaplains during WWII. An impetus for this was a belief in a prophecy from Matthew 24:6."

Considering that the Army also has Catholic, mainline Protestant, non-fundamentalist evangelical, and Jewish (and these days, Muslim and more) chaplains, why should only fundamentalists be stigmatized with the conspiratorial phrase "placing chaplains?"

Since the First Amendment is just as much part of the Constitution as the original seven articles, Sharlet's condescending explanation comes across even worse than Sutton indicates.

Jeff Sharlet at: November 18, 2009 at 8:39 AM said...

Thanks for the engagement. Let me respond to Matt's comments first. Thing is, I think it's you who are being unfair -- and condescending -- to fundamentalists. The folks I write about are not "nutjobs." I don't use the word, not because I want to be nice but because it's usually inaccurate and it always obscures more than it reveals. The support for Gibson's Passion, for instance, was pretty strong in the military -- I spoke to personnel at five military installations who reported mandatory or clearly coercive screenings. That's not nutjob, and if it's not representative of the majority, it's also not fringe. It's a real problem -- and, again, one recognized by many in the military.

I'll look forward to Turner's book on Crusade. That said, Crusade has always been marked -- as are most large organizations -- by factionalism, and there has always been a strong militant wing within it. Bright himself used some fiery rhetoric. The Crusade folks I encountered in the military made OCF look moderate. OCF, despite the predominance of militant thought in its official documents, still understands itself as sort of centrist; the Crusade activists I spoke to were deeply paranoid and emphatic that the military was meant to be Christian. That doesn't represent all of Crusade. But it does represent a faction in the military.

Keep in mind, my job as a journalist is not to present a demographic portrait; it's to zero in on a point of friction. That's why I say the vast majority of military personnel are concerned with doing their job. That's not my story here.

I agree about meeting the Bruce Hrabaks of the world -- that's why I spend so much time doing so, and writing articles that unsettle the assumptions of secular liberals. I think you missed the main point of the piece: Secular liberals, Obama included, assume that these fundamentalists are grasping for superstition because they're afraid of change of some sort. I don't think so. As I learned from Hrabak, and wrote, I think many of these folks are responding to the erosion of democratic culture. They're being asked to kill for a cause that can't be clearly explained, and told that this vague cause is democracy. They can see with their own two eyes that what's happening in Iraq and Afghanistan isn't democracy. So they're very reasonably searching for more transcendent explanations.

But all that said, it's not only touchy-feely to suggest that we should all simply "meet," its condescending to the convictions of non-liberals at both ends of the political spectrum. Compromise is a liberal value, explicitly rejected by many on the fundamentalist right -- not out of ignorance but based on a reasonable argument. The liberal defenders of fundamentalism always assume fundamentalists want to be like them. They don't. General Jerry Boykin isn't looking for compromise. And whether we like his ideas or not, we need to respect that position.

Jeff Sharlet at: November 18, 2009 at 8:48 AM said...

John -- yes, both of these can be true. There are 1.4 million active duty members of the military. There's room for more than one trend. As for your comparison of Petraeus and Obama, you're betraying your ignorance of military matters in your eagerness to present yourself as the reasonable center. Yes, Obama can endorse whatever he wants; he's not bound by the same rules as Petraeus. Petraeus unequivocally crossed the line. That's nice that it doesn't seem like a big deal to you. But it seemed like a very big deal to a group of very smart and informed Iraq vets I spoke to, who, deeply devoted to the Army, felt they'd been kicked in the teeth by their top commander. It's fine for you to say this speech is no big deal. You're not in a situation where you can be forced to participate in prayers for a dead buddy you know didn't want them.

As for Warren: Yes, military officers can only give their troops secular books. Them's the rules. John, it doesn't sound like you're too familiar with a command climate. A superior officer isn't like a department chair. You don't get to talk back.

As for Presbyterians -- well, yes. That was the big issue at this Yale Div/Law conference. Why the mainline denominations have abandoned the chaplaincy and what to do about it. But Presbyterians -- well, that's interesting -- as I recall the stats I saw, there are more PCA chaplains than there are PCUSA chaplains, despite the fact that there are three times as many PCUSA troops.

With regard to the title: My first title was "The God Soldiers," after a phrase I encountered in an some evangelical literature; my second, "God and Country," which was designed to deflect readers, my editor pointed out. Writers don't get to title their own work; and editors choose provocative titles to get the readers engaged and the conversation started. Looks like it worked.

James Kabala, meanwhile, wants to get wonky. You're right about the First Amendment. But, apparently, you're ignorant about some of the popular arguments used by some fundamentalist activists within the military, who insist that the First Amendment is not part of the Constitution. Others acknowledge that it is, but say that the establishment cause applies only to a denominationally singular state church, arguing that the U.S. is not an Anglican nation, but it was meant to be a Christian nation. Still others argue that the entire concept of separation was dreamed up whole cloth by Hugo Black -- a Klansman, they're quick to point out -- in Everson v. Board of Education. Some, meanwhile, believe in separation (don't forget, Americans United for Separation was once Protestants and Other Americans United, a virulently anti-Catholic group) and free exercise, but are picky about who'll they'll extend it to. Some cover Muslims but not Wiccans; others exclude Muslims. Most, but not all, include Jews. Some include Jews, but not Unitarians.

Last but not least: Harper's and Mencken. Sure, there's a significant Menckenite faction there. I'm not part of it, and neither is Bill McKibbin or Marilynne Robinson, to name just a few. Lapham was, and brilliantly so; his successor -- I THINK a mainline Protestant -- is not. That's how good magazines work. They're variety shows, not party platforms.

Manlius at: November 18, 2009 at 8:55 PM said...

Jeff, I'm glad you're willing to engage on this. I'm really enjoying the dialogue.

On a side note, where did you get the idea that Constitutional amendments aren't "technically" (your word) part of the Constitution?

Wayne at: November 19, 2009 at 10:18 AM said...

I am really enjoying the debates on this post, and I want to add my final thoughts on this subject. The military religion that Sharlet depicted in his article was problematic for the military throughout the Cold War. Lori Lynn Bogle, in her book “The Pentagon’s Battle for the American Mind,” described this religious expression as a civil religious variant in which some military officers viewed that institution as a “holy instrument of God’s will” to defend an “American way of life.”

I prefer Bogle’s term for this religious view to Sharlet’s characterization of it as fundamentalist. My conception of fundamentalism is influenced by Joel Carpenter’s definition of it as a doctrinal religion rooted in the Reformed faith. With that said, I understand the difficulties in defining fundamentalism, and I don’t think a military religion is mutually exclusive of fundamentalism. While I use Carpenter’s definition as a guide for defining fundamentalism, I also defer to its usage as a matter of self-identification.

In her book, Bogle argued that some military leaders worried about flagging patriotism among servicemen. A few officers took action by indoctrinating soldiers with a civil-military religion. Gen. Edwin Walker, for one, gained notoriety in the early 1960s for indoctrinating soldiers with a militant anticommunism that included a view of America as a redeemer nation. Among the presenters at his seminars were Billy James Hargis, Fred Schwarz, and Edgar C. Bundy, all of whom promoted an anticommunism rooted in the fundamentalist faith.

What I find interesting in Sharlet’s article are the sources for this military religious view. They included missionary agencies from outside the military, lay evangelism within the military, and the military chaplaincy. The last two, at least, have potential for a conflict of interest in relation to the disestablishment of religion. In reference to the military chaplaincy, the institutional duality of chaplains has been a source of contention throughout much of the twentieth century. The point of conflict centered on whether the chaplain was an instrument of the military or a servant of the church.

Additionally, the chaplaincy has a motto of “cooperation without compromise.” Chaplains are expected to service military personnel of different faiths without compromising the beliefs of their own religious tradition. The example provided by Chaplain Gary Hensley’s sermon demonstrates the complexities involved in these issues. While he perhaps did not violate the beliefs of his faith tradition, he appeared to be insensitive to the religious pluralism within the military.

Lastly, to answer James’ comment above regarding the stigmatizing of fundamentalists, when WWII began, chaplaincy quotas were based on the 1936 religious census, those denominations not enumerated in this census could not place chaplains. For separatist fundamentalists and some other evangelical denominations, this became problematic. They refused to allow the General Commission for Protestant chaplaincies to endorse their chaplains because this agency was essentially an extension of the Federal Council of Churches. Thus, they had to appeal to the chief of chaplains of army and navy for a quota. While the army readily obliged this request, the navy’s chief of chaplains delayed this request out of fear that they would not be ecumenical enough to serve the spiritual needs of sailors at sea.

During the war, the American Council of Christian Churches and the National Association of Evangelicals earned the right to endorse chaplains for their member denominations. Evangelicals belonging to those organizations viewed the military as an important missionary field. Simultaneously, mainline denominations have become more ambivalent about associating with the military.

Jeff Sharlet at: November 19, 2009 at 11:06 AM said...

Manlius -- I was deferring to a view held by Hrabak, and one that I've heard commonly espoused in ten years of reporting on evangelicalism and fundamentalism that the Bill of Rights is a separate document without as much power. For some of the more intellectually inclined within conservative evangelicalism, this idea derives from the notion of the Constitution's seven articles as divinely inspired, "God-breathed," in the words of the late Francis Schaeffer. They're not alone in the belief that the Bill of Rights is somehow extra; my guess is that that notion is very common among other groups as well, including secular folks. For instance, at the Air Force Academy a young Buddhist cadet who'd had a rough time of it with some evangelical faculty members complained of discrimination and yet conceded that the Constitution was, after all, a blueprint for a Christian nation. Which is all to say, there are texts, and there are beliefs, and they're not always the same thing. I'm interested in the space in between.

Thanks to Wayne for this invaluable post. I should add that I rarely characterize anyone as fundamentalist without asking them if that describes their point of view. I sometimes use the phrase "American fundamentalism," which I define in the introduction to my book The Family, with respect for Carpenter, Marsden, Ammerman, and others over there in the academic world who've given this a lot of thought. I should add, in case it's not obvious, that "American" is a qualifier that changes the meaning of the term.

You're certainly right about the stigmatization of evangelical and fundamentalist chaplains in the past (forget about Muslims all together, btw). But that stigmatization has long since been transformed into strong dominance of the chaplaincy. With that has come, perhaps, a loss of clarity on what the chaplaincy is for. This is, of course, disputed. But consider the view of the 2004 edition of the Commander's Handbook for Religious Ministry: "Spiritual readiness is a force multiplier." The Army version of the manual adds that role of chaplains is "the successful provision of religious support to meet requirements of force projection." (Emphasis mine.) In Katcoff v. Marsh, the court declared, "the test of permissibility in this context is whether, after considering practical alternatives, the chaplaincy program is relevant to and reasonably necessary for the Army's conduct of our national defense." (Emphasis mine.) Personally, I don't like this view of religion as instrumentalized -- weaponized, even -- for national defense, but it seems to be the prevailing view within the military and the courts. In that context, Hensley fails on every front: the establishment clause, the free exercise clause, and the very purpose of the chaplaincy, which is to contribute to the national defense. Not even OCF thinks shouting that the Army is the "new Israel" in a Muslim land is a bright idea. General Order 1A for DOD personnel within the USCENTCOM AOR -- Afghanistan and Iraq, essentially -- explicitly forbids "proselytizing of any religion, faith, or practice." That's not because CENTCOM cares about the religious freedom of Afghans and Iraqis; it's because they know such behavior puts the mission and the lives of US personnel at risk.

Thanks for Bogle reference. I'll check it out. Three other valuable titles on this are Anne C. Loveland's American Evangelicals and the U.S. Military 1942-1993, Kenneth Osgood's Total Cold War: Eisenhower's Secret Propaganda Battle at Home And Abroad, and Jeremy Gunn's Spiritual Weapons: The Cold War and the Forging of an American National Religion.

Manlius at: November 19, 2009 at 1:48 PM said...

But Jeff, from the article it seems that you were the one distinguishing between the original Constitution and the first ten amendments. You make the distinction in a sort of footnote correcting the idea of Hrabak.

I've heard people deny that the First Amendment asserts the separation of church and state, but I've never heard an argument against church-state separation based on the supposed inferiority of the Bill of Rights.

As for the divine inspiration or "theopneustos" nature of the Constitution, I must admit that I have never heard of this (and I've been around evangelicalism all my life). And you aren't saying that Francis Schaeffer believed this, are you? Please provide a reference! I've heard people say that God had some sort of providential hand in it, inspired perhaps in the same way that one would say Handel's "Messiah" is inspired, but never have I heard someone place it even near the inspiration of Scripture. Can you provide names?

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