Should the Military Be More Open to Nonbelievers?

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A commentary in the November 17th issue of the Washington Independent by Jonathan Patrick Herzog talks about the recent lawsuit by Jeremy Hall, a United States Army Specialist and atheist and Military Religious Freedom Foundation. The suit complains about harassment Hall has endured since he tried to organize an atheist meeting at his base in Iraq. The harassment included being threatened by Major Freddy J Welborn, who threatened to bring charges against him claiming he was violating the Uniform Code of Military Justice. I first wrote about this incident back in 2007 in my post Army Major disrupts Atheist meeting in Iraq – threatens court martial

Herzog is working on a book titled “The Hammer and the Cross,” exploring how U.S. leaders used religion as a weapon in the early Cold War.

Just like the “under God” statement being added to the pledge, religious evangelism got hot in the military during the Cold War. Herzog writes:

Added to this dilemma was a spiritual wild card. While Americans today would probably define communism as a political or economic philosophy, decision-makers in the 1940s and 1950s viewed it as a quasi-religion. It had prophets and prophecy, missionaries and martyrs, and a belief in the ultimate perfectibility of mankind through inevitable historical process.

National-security analysts fretted over the almost “messianic” devotion of Soviet citizens. Military leaders worried that physical force alone might be insufficient in the emerging Cold War. “Over and over again, gigantic concentrations of physical power have gone down in defeat before a lesser strength propelled by conviction,” warned one brigadier general in 1949. “The Goliaths have perished at the hands of the Davids.”

As long as the United States remains a religious country, there will be religion in the military. And while the outcome of Hall’s lawsuit is uncertain, it has sparked a worthwhile conversation about faith and the uniform.

Understanding why the military was allowed to craft its own religious imprimatur 60 years ago takes no large stretch of the imagination. During an era when the truly religious could not be communists, the truly irreligious could not be Americans. This axiom rang particularly true for those on the front lines of the Cold War.

Those lamenting Hall’s lawsuit today should consider this slice of military history. From Puritan dreams to evangelical rallies, religion has remained a constant force in our national journey — the military’s in particular.

But the official sanctions afforded it have been anything but constant. Few today realize just how much of the military’s current positions toward religion, far from being longtime American attitudes, are merely vestiges from the Cold War era.

Faith and the Uniform: Should the Military Be More Open to Nonbelievers?

While Herzog feels the military is more secular than during the heat of the Cold War, others like the Military Religious Freedom Foundation have documented bias or harassment of non-believers in the military. A recent big stink happened at the US Air Force Academy back in 2005. But the article is still a good read about the history of religion in the military.


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