The faith of the American soldier–and how LGBT activists are backing military chaplains into a corner

By Jonathon Van Maren

One of America’s key chroniclers of how the history of the United States has been shaped by the Christian faith is Stephen Mansfield, the author and co-author of over eighteen books, most recently Choosing Donald Trump: God, Anger, Hope, and Why Christian Conservatives Supported Him. His books The Faith of George W. Bush and Lincoln’s Battle with God have long been favorites of mine, but it was not until a couple of years ago that I stumbled across his 2005 book The Faith of the American Soldier, which details Mansfield’s research into the beliefs of military men and women on the frontlines—including his time embedded with the soldiers themselves during the War in Iraq.

The faith (or lack thereof) of those serving in America’s wars has often been a subject ignored by the media, largely because the vast majority of journalists are secular and thus religious topics often do not even occur to them. Additionally, the growing tension between the vocations of military chaplains and the forces of LGBT activism has only grown since the book’s publication, and as Mansfield told me during our interview, there is no readily available solution to the ongoing social experiment currently underway in the American military. His book and his insights into these topics are much-needed, and I enjoyed our conversation immensely.

What gave you the idea to write this book, The Faith of the American Soldier?

Well, just prior to that I’d written a book called The Faith of George W. Bush and I’d been real involved in the presidential election in 2004. I had a bit of a platform and I was grateful for that, and at the time publishers were beginning to ask me what I’d like to write next. We were getting a lot of stories about religious movements among the American soldiers in Iraq. I was intrigued by that. I had been studying millennials and religion for quite some time, but I hadn’t spent much time paying attention to soldiers, millennial soldiers and what was going on with them in the battlefield. I got permission from the Pentagon to be embedded with US troops in Iraq and I went over there and did the research for the book. Essentially it was that the millennials were taking their non-traditional approach to religion onto the battlefield and commanders were wrestling with what that meant exactly and I wanted to get ahead of that story and tell the story and perhaps do some good with it.

In the book you first detail the long religious tradition of the American military. What was it like to tell that story?

It is a fascinating story. There’s no question that when soldiers are on the battlefield, almost all of them are making some kind of deeper religious journey. It may not be a traditional religious journey, it may not be a Christian religious journey, but they’re all making some kind of deeper religious journey. In earlier times in American history, that was mostly Christian. Christian chaplains were involved, Bible services shaped entire wars. We now know that the American Civil War, for example, was dramatically impacted by massive religious revivals that occurred among the Southern troops. So it’s a fascinating story, and one that only specialists tend to know. And then you have to deal with that history up against our First Amendment history. Our Constitution requires the separation of the institutional church and state but not so much religion and state. Religion was meant to be of influence, but our Founding Fathers did not want the church and the church leadership to dominate the society. So this becomes an issue when you’re talking about chaplains, paid by the US government.

All of it became really interesting. And then I realized that many people in Washington—my wife and I split our time between Washington and Nashville—many people didn’t know anything about these issues, they didn’t know anything about the challenges chaplains were dealing with, they didn’t know about the religious surge going on amongst the troops. I thought if I could write a book that told this history and then brought it to the contemporary scene that perhaps I could advise these people a little bit and perhaps we could have some wiser policies regarding these things.

What are some of the stories you discovered about the American military chaplains?

It’s pretty amazing. These people, in my view, are heroes, whatever faith they’re from. These are people who go into battle unarmed. In some branches of the military they don’t allow chaplains to cross the wire and actually go into harm’s way, but Marine chaplains and Navy chaplains, they actually go into battle with these Marine units. So there they are, unarmed, ministering to these soldiers as they are shot, as they die, before they go out, encouraging them. It’s pretty stunning. Many of them are incredibly heroic—not only in terms of the fact that they’re in harm’s way and facing their own death, but they’ve been known to rescue civilians, they’ve been known to run out on the battle field and pull a wounded man out of the line of fire. It’s pretty amazing what they have accomplished.

It’s a grand tradition, chaplains in the military, as we see in Times Square in New York. There’s a statue of an Irish chaplain who ministered to World War I soldiers in a unit from New York. There’s a number of those kinds of statues around the US celebrating great chaplains. That grand tradition is being continued even though the average American doesn’t know about it.

A lot of people will be unaware of the story you tell in The Faith of the American Soldier. What are some of the stories you encountered while you were embedded with the military in Iraq?

The soldiers who went to war for the US in Iraq were interestingly a little bit older and better educated than many soldiers had been in previous wars. This is because this is an all-volunteer army, and most of them were engaged from university or college. And yet they took their non-traditional faith approach onto the battlefield. So when I got there and I was embedded in Iraq, one of the stories that was circulating that was an encouragement to a lot of the soldiers was the story of Sergeant C. This had actually been told in the Army Times; it was very well known and very well documented. Sergeant C went out on Christmas Day 2005 to unearth a nest of insurgents, which he’d been ordered to take his unit to unearth. He rounded a corner during this operation and an Iraqi officer was standing there with a .45 caliber pointed right in his face. Anyone who knows anything about weaponry knows that this should have been instant death when the officer pulled the trigger—a .45 will almost take a man’s head off.

The Iraqi officer fired, the gun sounded, and Sergeant C was still standing. So Sergeant C advanced on the Iraqi officer, who was just stunned, took him back to the POW area, and as he was going back in the Humvee to base, his fellow soldiers said, “You’ve got some blood coming out of your mouth. You probably need to go to the clinic and have the check you.” So he went back, and here’s what happened. This is actually very well-documented. He assumed, of course, that the Iraqi officer’s gun had misfired. It had not misfired. It had actually fired a bullet into Sergeant C, but what happened was the bullet went through his upper lip, and he had a very thick mustache which is why nobody knew the bullet had penetrated his upper lip, and it turned, and it displaced a tooth. The bullet was sitting right there in the gap where the displaced tooth had been in previously. So you have to picture an X-ray of a man with a grin, but one of his teeth is actually a bullet.

So they took him back to the medical area, the examining doctor said we’ve got to send you to the dental area, they padded the room with ballistic material, and they pulled the bullet the same way they would have pulled a tooth. This was such a miracle—of course, Sergeant C was just ticked off that they had to shave his mustache—and these X-rays were circulated in the Army Times, that soldiers were cutting this article out from the Army Times, folding it up, putting it in their pants’ pockets. They were carrying it almost like a votive thing: God, if you’re doing this kind of thing, do it for me. That’s how faith often works. Something that had been seemingly miraculous, something that had inspired people, something that had turned people’s thoughts to God; they carried with them, they held in their hands, they put in their pockets, they used it—it was more than a good luck charm, they wanted it to turn their thoughts to God. That was perhaps the most powerful thing circulating at the time that I showed up over there to be embedded.

Would you say that the American forces are less religious now? You said in your book that one of the misconceptions you wanted to clear up was that American soldiers now are less religious, when the truth is that they engage with faith differently than past generations have.

I don’t think they are any less religious, I think they are less traditional. I asked a soldier once what he believed. He kind of looked up in the sky and he said, “Well, sir, ‘bout two parts Sunday school, a little bit of Deepak Chopra, maybe two parts beer commercials (he was talking about inspirational statements from Budweiser and so on),” and then he said, “and maybe a few fortune cookies.” He was half-joking, but what he was trying to say was: My faith is eclectic. My faith is non-traditional. And that’s what I found over there. Speaking now in technical terms, these are the “nones,” people who don’t claim any category of religion—but we shouldn’t assume that the “nones” are non-religious. They’re just non-traditional. So it’s very possible that you’ll have “nones” who are reading the Bible, and studying faith, in small groups for prayer, things like that.

That’s what I found amongst the soldiers. You would have soldiers who wouldn’t dare go to a chapel service or who would not dare take counsel with a military chaplain, but they were reading the Bible, they were listening to podcasts from whatever famous preacher was interesting to them on their iPads and so on, they were reading websites, they were getting together in small groups, and so they were as active with their faith as people who attend my church. But they would never be considered traditional in any way. Then you would get people who were even more eclectic than what I’m describing. They would take inspiration from five or six different religions; they might chant, they might mediate, then they might read the Bible—they had very strange expressions. My point is that they were no less religious and no less spiritually oriented, they were just less traditional and certainly less oriented towards the military chaplain system.

You’re saying less traditional, but it sounds like you’re saying less Christian.

But not in every case. In fact, I was actually surprised at how Christian these folks were. I would have to say that of the troops that I was with, 75% were Christian in some form. Then you had your officially non-Christians; those who identified as Jewish, those who identified as Muslim, those who identified as Buddhist, etc. And then within the Christian fold, you had some who actually had denominational affiliations—they knew they were Southern Baptist, they knew they were Catholic, and so on. Then you had others who were sort of floating around with just a general faith, and wouldn’t even have had a problem with adding elements of other faiths. Not to be insulting, but this would be a little bit in the mold of Oprah Winfrey, you know: Just pull from any religion what you find meaningful. That’s what some of these people were doing, who considered themselves Christian. But I would say a solid 70 to 75% were in some way practicing Christianity.

They weren’t flooding into chapel services, and at the time I was there the war was earlier on, and they weren’t even allowing large gatherings of people for fear of bombings so they wouldn’t even have had big chapel services. But many of these people were praying together in their Humvees, praying together back around their bunks, and all of this was surprising to me. So I found them to be more Christian and practicing more than I had expected. But yes, definitely non-traditional. I often tell the story of going to my first prayer meeting with a bunch of Marines, and here are these guys who are just touching the backs of their hands because they’re so loaded down with equipment and stuff, they’re not really holding hands, and one guy started praying: “Lord, I just thank you for the effing day, help us to eff these guys…the enemies up…” The guy clearly had [some kind] of faith, but he had never been churched or told that his way of talking and communicating was inappropriate, so I was hearing language I haven’t heard since I played college football.

You wrote that so many people who got to Iraq needed to find some sort of faith because they needed to find meaning in what they were engaged with, whether it was believing that the war was a just war, whether it was believing that killing the people they killed was morally permissible, or just the strain of facing death every day—they needed something.

We really don’t understand, because we see movies that make this seem like it happens so easily, but one of the most difficult things a human being can do is kill another human being. Secondary to that is facing your own death. All of this presses religious questions into the soul. One of the things that is really surfacing in the study of post-traumatic stress is that yeah, it is hard for young people and it is hard for soldiers to see violence, it is hard for them to experience the death of their buddies, but what is often causing post-traumatic stress is really a moral issue of did I do the right thing. Was I doing—using my word now, not theirs—righteousness. Was this a righteous kill—you’ll hear them say that in the military. If a civilian died because of what I did, was I doing a right and moral thing?

There’s even a school of thought within the therapy of post-traumatic stress that really deals with this moral issue. It’s not so much that the soldiers have seen violence. That’s certainly jarring, and yes we have versions of shell-shock as they did in World War I. But the issue that’s beginning to grow and we’re becoming aware of is more of an issue is that for many of these soldiers who are wrestling and having a difficult time, it’s not just the conditioning and the violence and the tension they’re dealing with, it’s the fact that they did things they now have to wrestle with morally. If they can’t reconcile it morally, then of course this haunts them for the rest of their lives. Whereas I’m not saying it’s easy for those who feel like what killing they’ve done or what violence they’ve engaged in is moral, but at least it settles them.

If I walk into a bank and I happen to be carrying a gun, and a guy is shooting people and robbing the bank and killing civilians and I kill him, I’m not likely to be that haunted the rest of my life because I killed a bad guy. I saved lives. But if it happens some other way and I’m unsure, I’m not sure he was a bad guy, or I shoot the wrong guy, well soldiers deal with those kinds of questions all the time. That is what haunts most of them. The whole issue of is this a just war and am I engaged in a just cause and am I daily doing a just and righteous thing, a moral thing—that’s huge. Part of the problem is that chaplains in the American military are actually prevented from discussing a religious justification for the war. They are prevented from discussing with their soldiers a moral rationale for the war they’re engaged in, they’re not allowed to speak about those things.

Part of that is that the military doesn’t want any soldier thinking he is engaged in some sort of crusade, but for the average soldier what they’re most wrestling with the moral rationale and moral justification for the actions they’re engaged in. So somehow we’ve got to bridge this gap that allows chaplains to speak to those things, because they’re the primary moral officers in the field.

So with the Iraq war when it initially started, you’ve got Bush making the case and Cheney making the case and memorably, Colin Powell making the case that this is a just war, and when you’ve got the men who are fighting the war seeking help from the very men who are there to help them through difficult psychological and spiritual circumstances aren’t allowed to make that same case from their own perspectives?

They are allowed to say you’re doing a good thing here, you’re freeing captives, you’re defeating a tyrant—civil, secular, military language. What is not allowed is for Chaplain Jones to say to me, Stephen Mansfield, that “Jesus in on our side in this. This is a just war. God is with us. The other side is evil. They may even be satanic, and you are justified in killing this enemy, which is an enemy of God’s purpose.”

We can both understand why this is dangerous territory, because if that chaplain says that to me, then this war for me has turned into a crusade. That’s exactly what we didn’t want, particularly when we were fighting a Muslim army. But nevertheless, for me, Stephen Mansfield the soldier, this chaplain has got to be able to connect the actions I’m required to engage in with the faith he’s there to help strengthen in my soul. If I can’t reconcile what I’m doing day in, day out, with my faith, we’re going to have a fissure that’s going to grow, and it’s going to cause a lot of the psychological problems we saw it causing a lot of people. I would say the same for the Jewish chaplain, and for the Buddhist chaplain—I mean, if you’re going to have people of these faiths in battle, and you’re going to have state-paid chaplains to minister to them, somehow they have to be able to address the moral issues of the war itself and what that soldier is required to do even if they’re not allowed to stray into the area of large-scale moral justification for the war.

One of the points you made in your book many times is that because we live in a society that is increasingly secular, chaplains may feel that their position is under fire and that they should kind of keep their head down.

Chaplains are some of the most heroic people I met in the field, but they do feel under the gun. They do feel sidelined. They’re often used by command as sort of a consultant about religion: Help me understand the difference between Sunni and Shia, for example. Help me understand what this Buddhist soldier is thinking, that kind of thing. But they’re not necessarily used as ministers. So they do feel that their unique ministry, which would have been valued far more fifty or a hundred years ago, is not that valued, and often what they do is considered to be divisive.

You can have a conservative Southern Baptist chaplain, for example. Well, he’s not necessarily in favor of some of the avante garde social positions that the military is taking—same-sex marriage, things of that nature.  So he’s got to keep his mouth shut if he’s going to keep his job. I’m not saying he’s cowardly, but many chaplains in the military are dealing with these sorts of issues as the military has increasingly become a place for social experimentation. So these guys feel like they have to keep it zipped and keep their mouth shut. They will minister to individuals, but they try to shy away from any addressing of just war theory or things of that nature on a large scale because it tends to get them in trouble.

It is a problem. We have a government that the Founding Fathers officially intended to be influenced by religion but not dominated by religion, yet that same government is employing chaplains to guarantee the First Amendment Rights of American soldiers, and there’s a certain amount of tension built into that. Frequently, the degree to which a military chaplain can express his faith or creeds or is completely dependent upon the commander in the field. If that particular battalion commander is not very forthright about faith or not very open to faith, then that chaplain gets pretty much shut down.

The issue of social experimentation is increasingly important. I have contacts in branches of the Canadian military, for example, who will send me things like the diversity training that members of the Navy are forced to undergo, the transcripts of speeches by trans activists they have to listen to. Soldiers are being expected to treat these sorts of things with the respect that was once reserved for religion and for faith. I’ve had members of the infantry tell me, anonymously, that although they serve with gay soldiers who are just as brave as the next guy, everyone is well aware that a single complaint from one of them could ruin their careers. How is this impacting the American military?

It’s very much the same thing. All the soldiers I talked to who were not gay or trans, all of them had respect for the soldiers they were with as soldiers, in other words, they would say, I know six gay soldiers and they’re all fine warriors. However, with what is sometimes referred to as political correctness, the hypersensitivity to these issues in command makes it very, very volatile. So if a soldier is just heard telling a gay joke, for example, and of course this works the same way with a racist joke, this could be career-ruining. I’m not saying there shouldn’t be a reprimand—I don’t think we should be allowing people to be verbally abused or things of that nature. However, you’re absolutely right—there’s a high level of sensitivity.

And of course, a Southern Baptist chaplain who ministers in Dallas, for example, would never be required against his conscience to marry a gay couple. But in the military, he is required or he loses his job. So you now have a situation where you have chaplains—these are ordained clergy committed to service with very traditional views of their faith, and not just Christian; Jewish, Muslim—but if they’re in the military chaplaincy, they can absolutely be required to engage in ritual services, wedding ceremonies, to officiate at these ceremonies that violate their faith. We’ve got a very strange situation, and most of it has just kind of gone underground, people keeping their mouths shut to keep their jobs.

But this is going to continue to be an issue. We seem to perpetually be at war, we’re constantly growing our military, especially under the Trump Administration, and so the need for chaplains is going to be greater than ever. But the level of dissatisfaction is pretty huge. Military chaplains are leaving the chaplaincy at pretty high rates. Their faith is more honored outside of the military, their salaries are higher, there’s less of the challenge and the risk, so why would they stay in the military where their faith is not very much appreciated? These are major, major policy issues, and I’m not sure, quite frankly, that senior levels of command are really paying attention to these things much less understand them.

How do you think this social experimentation in the military is going to end?

I’m hoping we get past it, and maybe the way we get past it is for a lot of this trendiness to sort of become an old hat so we can get on with business. The fact is that when you use the military and emphasize within military culture any social cause other than being a lean, clean, fighting machine, you turn it into a bit of a social club. You move away from the military mandate, you move away from the hard edge of what a military ought to be about. That diminishes its mission. Please don’t hear me saying that having gay soldiers diminishes the mission. I don’t believe that. I want any American to be allowed to serve in the military. But once they’re in the military, I want their focus to be on being the best fighting machine they can be so we can do what we’re supposed to do in the world so fewer lives are lost on both sides and victories are won.

When a huge portion of time is spent in sensitivity training and so on—why, for example, would the gay flag need to be raised over a military base? This is an experiment. This is trendiness. This is an attempt to force upon the military, which is under state control, a level of political correctness that is meant to radiate around the country. I have to tell you that those in uniform resent this, because if they’re in the military what they want to be is proud, competent, and strong, and part of an amazing fighting force that does good in the world. That’s why they’re there. If they wanted to deal with the latest trends in political correctness, they could have stayed in a university setting. They could work in government. They could form an NGO and advocate for a cause. That’s not why they’re carrying a weapon or learning how to fly or knowing how to do munitions. That’s not what they’re there for.

There are soldiers I have talked to who have spent more time in sensitivity training then [training] in the actual use of their weapons. That’s not going to bode well for the future and its not going to bode well for the motivation of these soldiers.

You began the book describing the Christian warrior ethic, and you talked about how the soldiers you were embedded with in Iraq had to explore that identity. What sorts of things did you find in your research?

There’s a long tradition of the Christian warrior ethic and it comes out of the medieval period more than any other time largely because knighthood systematized some of these things and incorporated rituals. Soldiers would fast and pray before being commissioned and they would literally hold their weapons aloft and offer them to God. This was not so they could justifiably kill the other side, it was so they would be committed to ideals and restraints and character that would be important. They committed themselves to not harm civilians, they committed themselves to only engage in righteous fights and righteous warfare, they committed themselves to be skilled in what they did so that they didn’t do undue harm.

And then there were rituals of cowling and knighting—somebody would take the sword and touch the shoulder—all of that to say that this was an important part of the Christian warrior ethic, and this very same thinking flowed into the American military. Roosevelt wrote about it. There was a text in every Bible given to every soldier who fought in World War I, for example. The idea was not to create crazed religious warriors, the idea was to create soldiers of nobility and character and morality and devotion to God, who would fight well, kill evil enemies, but show restraint—not rape, not pillage, not do unnecessary damage, and live out broader lives to the glory of God. It is a very cherished heritage, and in the modern military it is exactly what is under fire.

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For anyone interested, my book on The Culture War, which analyzes the journey our culture has taken from the way it was to the way it is and examines the Sexual Revolution, hook-up culture, the rise of the porn plague, abortion, commodity culture, euthanasia, and the gay rights movement, is available for sale here.

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