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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

For God and Country: Religion and the U.S. Military

Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Event Recap

Hundreds of thousands of American soldiers in recent years have endured long wartime deployments and the physical, spiritual and psychological challenges that accompany them. How they handle this experience—how they make sense of what they are asked to do, of the unspeakable things they see, of the choices they are required to make—is in part the province of the chaplain corps, which ministers to the spiritual needs of America’s servicemen and women.

As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan come to an end, there are also broader cultural questions about how the rest of us respond to their return. For at least the past hundred years, Americans have invested the American soldier with a deep religious significance connected to heroism, purity of sacrifice, and devotion to the nation. But the soldiers themselves have not always seen things the same way. To ponder these and other crucial issues about religion in the U.S. military today, the Boisi Center invited two experienced servicemen and academics to a panel discussion on February 9.

Jonathan Ebel, a religious studies professor at the University of Illinois and former naval officer, began with observations about how God and country inspire similarly strong emotions (from love and hate to compassion, duty and awe) and rituals (hymns, holidays, ceremonies), and indeed are frequently joined together through a distinctive American civil religion. He then discussed three American servicemen— Salvatore Giunta, David Senft and Pat Tillman—whose ambivalent stories of sacrifice and heroism confounded the traditional judgments that Americans bestow upon its honored and fallen warriors.

Fr. Richard Erikson, chaplain and colonel in the U.S. Air Force, gave specific focus to Ebel’s reflections by exploring the role of military chaplains, who naturally blend patriotism and religious practice in their daily duties. Chaplains are unarmed noncombatants in the battlefield who must minister to all soldiers’ religious needs—from crises of faith and matters of conscience to faithful observance and last rites—without proselytizing for their own faith tradition. Because existential threats are simply a part of the job for servicemen and women, said Erikson, their spiritual wellness is a crucial component to achieving military readiness. The chaplain corps thus serves an essential function in the armed services, and in so doing presents a fascinating case study of the ways God and country are intertwined in the military.