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Onward Christian Soldiers

D. Michael Lindsay is the author of Faith in The Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite and is a member of the sociology faculty at Rice University. In the post below he examines the influence of religion on the military based on his experience interviewing prominent evangelical Americans. Read more by Lindsay here.

In the buildup to the General Petraeus’s appearance before Congress, we’ve been hearing a lot about partnerships between the American military and Sunni tribal leaders, like the so-called “Anbar Awakening.” These military leaders are often the only Americans Iraqis ever meet. And these leaders are more and more likely—especially at the elite level—to be evangelicals.

9780195326666.jpgOver the past five years, I have interviewed hundreds of evangelicals who hold positions of power in politics, business, academia, and entertainment, as well as the armed forces. And I can say that the military has the most evangelical feel of all.

John Hamre, who served as Deputy Secretary of Defense from 1997 to 2000 and now heads the influential Center for Strategic and International Studies, told me, “When we shifted…to an all-volunteer force, [the military pulled] increasingly from a segment of society that had strong cultural affinity to the military lifestyle and the values that are enshrined in the military community. So over the last 25 years, the military has become far more evangelical [as well as] more Southern, more rural, more conservative.” Indeed, evangelicalism has become the prevailing religious force in the U.S. military in the post-Vietnam era.

We have an army of mainly Christian soldiers in the middle of a sectarian war in Iraq. And beyond Iraq, the military is increasingly the public face of the United States in the battle for the hearts and minds of ordinary Muslims. The evangelicalization of the military thus presents a serious diplomatic challenge. But it’s not an insurmountable one. As I show in my book, though, there are two forms of evangelicalism—a strident, populist version and a more flexible, cosmopolitan one. Which type prevails within the armed forces will be critical to our efforts.

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