January 25, 2021

Open Mic: Faith and Military Service


Yesterday was Veterans Day here in the U.S., a day to thank those who have served our country in the military.

I read an interesting piece by Tobin Grant at RNS which suggests that religious people (Christians, in the research) are more likely to be veterans. I don’t know how much stock I put in what’s said, but I thought it would be interesting to discuss the relationship between Christian faith and military service in American Christianity.

Here is Tobin’s first chart, the one we’ll focus on for our discussion:


Tobin summarizes:

About one-in-five religious Americans are veterans. This is about twice the proportion found among the “nones.”

According the most recent General Social Surveys (2010, 2012, & 2014) around 20 percent of men and two percent of women have served in the military. Veterans are most common in Protestant churches. Those with no religion are 50-60 percent less likely to have served in the military.

He admits there may be other factors involved, such as age (veterans are likely to be older), socioeconomic status (those with lower status may see the military as a way of making a better life for themselves), etc.

In the discussion today, you are free to respond to the simple data presented in this chart. But we might also broaden the conversation to talk more generally about relationships you might perceive between people of faith and participation in military service.


  1. Eckhart Trolle says

    What, no stats for the Quakers or Mennonites?

  2. This year, I find this, the relationship between the practice of Christianity and the participation in military service, difficult to talk about. I’m a non-veteran, and perhaps in past years I haven’t been reticent enough in my willingness to talk about that of which I don’t know. I’ll sit it out this year.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      I’ll also sit out. I’ve learned to just avoid this topic.

      The correlation between widespread ‘simplistic conservatism’ [“Government Bad!”] and militarism is such a confoundingly ironic aspect of our sociological reality that I am resigned to never understand it.

  3. I couldn’t do the service thing. So I have to sit it out when it comes to judgement especially mine. I never could line up Jesus and military service. Frankly I’d rather be shot and killed before I would rather have that to live with the rest of my life. The only problem I have in recent years was Hitler and his legions and how they thought. Such darkness on the planet. It stands in my face. Little Adolf playing as a little boy then the old Adolf watching everything slip away into the lie he believed. How many millions. Stalin was just as bad.

    When Constantine went to battle then excepted Christianity it messed me up. You never know what things are loosed upon us. That’s it before I go to far. I am grateful for men and women whose calling is to keep my ass safe.
    I just haven’t been able to make it not be confusing to me.

  4. I served in the Navy from 83 to 93. I’m a Christian, but only since 96ish. Didn’t see or know many Christians where I served, four years in Maine, six in California. Not saying they weren’t around, just didn’t hear much talk about it. There were a few that stood out, but they were usually the ones that broadcast to everyone and then after much ridicule were quiet about it. I’m guessing that most just attended mass or Sunday mainline services and kept it to that.

  5. I would also add that many people identify as Christians because someone in their family was/is and when asked their affiliation, answer “Christian” without knowing anything about it. My dog tags and military record have me as being a Methodist. That was my answer when asked, because that was what the church that my cub scout troop met in was. I honestly didn’t have an affiliation or really cared to.

  6. My brother served in Viet Nam and the experience has affected him to this day. Currently, I live next door to Camp Pendleton and attend (since months before 9/11) a church which has a number of Marines and their families in attendance. Mostly they are from humble origins, more southern than northern, and the higher ranking ones seem to be mostly Anglo. In my time there I have personally known two young men who died in Iraq. Those having been deployed there have mostly been discharged into civilian life and the current crop have not seen shots fired.

    That all being said, here are MY observations after speaking and spending time with these young men and a few women: The younger ones seem to have joined out of idealism and a desire to belong to something bigger than themselves. Quite a few of them came to faith while in the military, so the chart printed above should be discounted as almost irrelevant as it was the result of a survey of veterans AFTER they served.

    As for the low count of the “nones”, all I can say is that they are their own god and that is the god they serve.

  7. Steve Newell says

    How much of the issue of Christians in military service in an American issue? We, as a society place greater value on Christians who serve in military than those who serve in public service. In Paul’s letters, he asks for prayers and greeting for those who serve the emperor. How would we look at this today?

    • Who exactly are those “who serve in public service” anyway? The implication being that “public service” somehow elevates the guy working at the DMV to a level of a self-sacrificing noble function for the betterment of society. As opposed to my plumber who’s simply working for a living.

      Military service? – yes.
      Public service? – not so much.

      (rant off)

      • Steve Newell says

        So is a fireman or a policeman at the same level as the DMV guy or the one in the military?

        • Eckhart Trolle says

          As a jihadi, I think the profession of arms has special glory. Also, you get more virgins when you die as a martyr than, say, when you’re a postman and dogs bite you.

        • One has to look at the benefits of those professions as well as the term of employment.

          For the vast majority of military, their enlistment is 4-6 years and then they are out. Their pay is pathetic and if they are married their spouses live in relative poverty if there are children involved until the spouse attains the equivalent rank of sergeant.

          Police and fire fighters get decent pay, great medical, and retirement after 20 years with a reasonable pension. They go into those professions with the intent of staying long enough to “retire” at a fairly young age and then move into a second profession. Yes, in ONE way they are similar because they are SOMETIMES at risk of personal injury or death, so for that they should be honored.

          So when comparing the young people in the military with public safety professions, as WELL as other govt jobs, there is absolutely NO equivalence. Yes. they ARE public servants because they actually serve the public, but they do not, by and large, go into those professions out of a desire to “serve”.

          • I am a volunteer firefighter. I receive no pay whatsoever. I am also an atheist. Psychoanalyze me, dawg.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            But these days in Cali (thanks to Public Employee Unions(TM)), those professional bureaucrats at the DMV get the “great medical and retirement after 20 years” just like cops and firemen.

  8. I’ve been in the Navy since 2009. The best expression of a Christian soldier or sailor’s attitude to war that I’ve ever seen came from a WWII-era prayer book. Paraphrased slightly:

    O God, who seest that in this warfare we are seeking to serve thee, and yet in the waging of it must needs do many things that are an offence against thy love; Accept, we pray thee, our imperfect offering, and use it unto good.


    On a more mundane note, I’ve met people of every faith in the military (up to and including Cajun voodoo) and a whole lot of agnostics, atheists, and “nones,” but the group that has particularly stood out to me as tying military service with religion is Mormons. I’ve run across several practicing Mormons in the military, all of whom were outstanding to work with because their religious upbringing had stressed service, leadership, self-discipline, and work ethic. I asked a couple of them about how they came to enlist, and both said that their upbringing encouraged military service as a way to serve your country while developing the virtues I mentioned above. With all of them, they practiced what they preached, and that made them great to work with and valuable assets to the unit.

  9. Well this issue is a minefield anyway so why just plunge full speed ahead?

    Are we allowed to examine the impulse (shared by all humans and not just Americans) that leads one to to abandon one’s life and home and travel thousands of miles to kill people you’ve never met on the orders of people you’ve never met for objectives you only dimly understand, without being branded a traitor or a subversive? Are we allowed to critique people who give in to this impulse? When we lavish praise on them for giving in to this impulse are we not ultimately exploiting them?

    Does “turn the other cheek” or “pray for those who spitefully use you” apply to Nazis? Can the folks responsible for the bombing of Dresden or the fire bombing of Tokyo be called “Christian” in any meaningful sense?

    Are we allowed to think on these things?

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > Are we allowed to critique people who give in to this impulse?

      Short answer: No.

    • –> “Are we allowed to think on these things?”

      Seems to me that’s why iMonk exists.

      While it’s difficult for me to imagine Jesus picking up an M-16 and killing anyone, there must be times when warfare is the best of horrible alternatives, right? (Taking on Nazi Germany, for instance.) It’s a sad state of the world, yes, if warfare is the best option, but sometimes I think it comes to that.

      But once that warfare domino is pushed, yikes. Ugly stuff happens. (Dresden, etc.)

      • Yes. Christian pacifism, I understand – even if I don’t agree with it, their reaction against mass violence and it’s aftereffects is understandable and I respect their convictions.

    • Your description of the military is proctological view, overstated and highly weighted by your own personal views (which is just fine). I’ve never met a member of the military that joined to kill others.

      You might say the same about law enforcement as well. They want to wear a firearm so that they can shoot people, right?

      • But oscar you don’t know what my personal views are so how can you pass judgment on them fine or not? I was asking questions. If someone asks us a question and that questions disturbs us then perhaps our first response should be to ask ourselves why that is?

        • James the Mad says

          That’s BS, Stephen, and you know it. The very phrasing of your question gives you away.

          You’re probably too young to understand the reference, but the manner in which you even asked the question sounds like those who joined Hanoi Jane in calling contemporaries of mine “baby killers.”

    • We are allowed to critique the impulse, as long as we recognize the context it comes in. Namely the power games that large, rich, and militarized nations always play.

      I feel like I can and should be thankful for the service of veterans, in part because service in their capacity is not necessarily limited to violence in order to protect me, something I’d personally rather they didn’t do, though I understand the feeling that it’s necessary.

      But the patriotic holidays (Veterans’ Day, Memorial Day, etc.) are usually awash in maudlin statements about the sacrifices of our service people. And without making this about vets, the way we as a nation gush at these times makes me cringe. Partly because I’ve come to believe that one of the lies we are told about warfare is that to call into question the actions of the military, especially its policymakers, is to impugn the sacrifices of those who have been wounded or killed. “They paid the highest price” we think; “the war MUST have been morally worth it, on some level, otherwise I would have to admit the deaths of our nation’s young men and women was in vain.”

      I mean, who’s going to tell the Nam Vet in a wheelchair that he could be walking right now, and his buddies could have grown up to have families? No no, it’s too painful to admit that, so the war must have been worth it, and his sacrifice accomplished something. Queue maudlin-inducing images of the flag and eagle.

      In business, it’s called the “sunk cost” fallacy. I already spent the resources, so now I have to convince myself it’s the best course of action, even if it turns out there was a better option…only in politics it’s driven by the needs of the powerful to protect their wealth and expand their influence.

      There may certainly be nobility in the sacrifices of combat veterans (I assume there is), but it has to do with what they did once they were sent to hell on earth, not the choice to go (usually). Doing what had to be done at the moment, saving their friends or whatever. There are amazing stories from war that I do believe have much value. But politically, much of the sacrifice is actually for nothing, or for too little, and someone should get around to admitting that at some point, in a public way. And this is obviously not the fault of veterans, nor is it designed to disparage veterans. More often then not they’ve probably been the victims of swindlers and charlatans in Washington. But did these casualties “die to keep us safe” as the narrative goes? Not in Vietnam, they didn’t. Nor either gulf war, apparently. Saying this ought to be patriotic, since the admission that would protect American lives, but instead it’s considered patriotic to continue giving our 18 to 21-yr-olds lifelong trauma, emotional scars, bodily mutiltations, and a much higher suicide rate than normal.

      Woe to us if we see that kind of dehumanization at work in our nation and think sentimentally “Oh, what a noble sacrifice he has made.”

  10. About 37% of living veterans are from Vietnam, whereas 45% are from the Gulf War until the present day and 17% are from “peacetime.” My guess is that the high percentage in mainline churches is because their median age is older, and the percentage of 60 to 70-year-olds who served in Vietnam is higher than the percentage of young people who served in Iraq or Afghanistan (but, not by much).

    As for Christians in general being more likely to serve in the military, there are probably several factors in play. One, obviously, is that American Christianity often serves as a cheerleader for nationalism and for the military. Another factor is that the military draws heavily from populations that have economic or educational disadvantages, who are also statistically more likely to be religious. It might also be true that experiencing war leads people to be more likely to seek our religious community as a way of making sense of what they have been through.

    • –> “American Christianity often serves as a cheerleader for nationalism…”

      Yes to this. I know several Christians who are more concerned about the Kingdom of ‘Murica than the Kingdom of God.

    • It might also be true that experiencing war leads people to be more likely to seek our religious community as a way of making sense of what they have been through.

      In my experience with military I give that quote a +1!!

  11. I served in the Women’s Army Corps (WACs, now gone because women are integrated into the regular army). It was 1964 when I joined, and I joined mainly to have a job. There was no war going on, I was not able to get a teaching position, which was the only job I was qualified for with a BA degree, and the Army was very glad to have me because I had a college degree. I was pretty much an atheist, though kind of a reluctant one. I made no connection at all between the mainline Christianity of my childhood, and the Army service.

    Of course, in late 1964 America began removing all the wives and children of troops in Vietnam, and then the war began in earnest. I heard jokes at the Officer’s Club in Fort Dix: “Don’t knock Vietnam. It’s the only war we’ve got.” Joking stopped pretty soon.

    My brother was a Marine at Da Nang during the Tet Offensive of 1968. A time of horror for our family, of course. He came home, and still lives on the farm he bought with his money saved from his stint there. For a year after coming home, he want basically insane — wouldn’t sleep indoors, drunk most of the time, screaming nightmares. He once loomed over some man in a bar who was contemptuously joking about the war, and screamed at him “Nineteen months in that goddamn stinking hellhole…” I figured all of this was a sign of his basic sanity, and thank goodness, it was.

    Returning Vietnam vets were treated like scum of the earth. People at our church, where Dad had been an elder and a choir member for years, would not look at him or speak to him when he came home on leave once and proudly wore his Marine dress blues to church. I am probably going to hell because I will never forgive them.

    As for me, when I went in to the Army, I was a hawk. I bought everything the government said, because it was the government. I thought we had good reason to be in a small Asian country, protecting it from Communism. (I was 21, OK?)

    By 1966, when I had fulfilled my Army commitment and left for graduate school, I had begun to wonder, very much, about our rationale for being there. Body bags were coming home, a poem I had learned in one of my lit classes began to haunt me, and I wasn’t at all sorry to leave. Now, half a century later, I am a Christian and a pacifist. Nowadays, when someone asks me how I liked the Army, I quip, “It made a man out of me. But that wasn’t quite what I had in mind.”

    Thanks for letting me rant on like this. I will close with the poem that back then told me plainly what my subconscious already knew. (The title is Latin for “It is most sweet and fitting”)

    Dulce Et Decorum Est
    Wilfred Owen

    Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
    Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
    Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
    And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
    Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
    But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
    Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
    Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines [gas shells] that dropped behind.

    Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
    Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
    But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
    And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
    Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
    As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

    In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
    He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

    If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
    Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
    And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
    His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
    If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
    Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
    Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
    Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, –

    My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
    To children ardent for some desperate glory,
    The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
    Pro patria mori.

  12. I fled fundamentalism in 1977, then served a 4-year hitch in the US Marines, converting to Catholicism, where I remain today, just before the enlistment ended. I would not enlist today.

    I suggest that, to really grasp the sad connection between American Christianity and the military, one should read the life of Fr. George Zabelka, the Catholic chaplain for the crews that dropped the atomic bombs on Japan. He blessed the crews and the bombs, but later he thoroughly and publicly repudiated it and became a pacifist.

    • My sister’s father-in-law met his wife (both physicists) while they were working on the Manhattan Project. I am told that he felt horrible remorse afterward, and always drank himself into a stupor on VJ Day.

    • I wonder how the tens-of-thousands of soldiers – if not hundreds of thousands, if you consider the Japanese who would’ve fought to the end – who would’ve died trying to take Japan felt about the A-bombs. And I’m guessing civilian casualties would’ve been horrific either way.

      I’m not necessarily defending the bombs, just saying there is another way to view they’re result. Getting Japan to surrender was going to cost a lot of lives regardless, including civilian.

  13. There are only two types of people who a Christian in the military may be ordered to kill:

    1. Another Christian brother or sister.

    2. A non-believer.

    In instance 1, why would I kill my own family member at the behest of my government?

    In instance 2, why would I take part in sending someone (whatever your belief is about Hell) to likely judgement and damnation?

    In both cases it shows a profound misunderstanding of the gospel, the Church, and eternal shalom.

    Because of this, I could never participate in the military. I am puzzled by how anyone who claims to follow Christ could do so. And I’d be extremely disappointed in my children if they did so either.

  14. As is often the case (although sometimes subtly), Canada differs from the US. Last December, I retired from the Canadian Air Force (a couple of years ago we returned to using the title RCAF) after almost 38 years of service. Five of those years were spent in the US working shoulder to shoulder with my American brothers and sisters in arms. Although I have no data to back this up, my empirical observation is that the vast majority of Canadian military members would consider themselves as “nones”, or at least have rarely darkened the door of a church. Most churches I’ve attended in Canada, located near a military base, had few active military members or veterans in the congregation. In several cases, I was the only active military member who attended the church (I’m not Anabaptist). The three churches I attended while stationed in the US were a striking contrast. They all had a significant number of active military members or veterans.

    While I have no regrets about spending much of my life in uniform, I know that what motivated me, and most of my Canadian comrades, was much different (in most cases at least) than what motivated my American colleagues. Last Sunday, my pastor asked me to lay a wreath on behalf of my church at yesterday’s Remembrance Day ceremony. I refused. While I haven’t wrestled the theological and philosophical issues to the ground, I did not feel right in participating in the ceremony as a representative of my church (and would have preferred if the church has not laid a wreath). I did, however, attend the ceremony, and was proud to do so as a vet and a Canadian citizen.

  15. I never served, so what I can say is nominal. My question would be that in today’s society, how would faith enter this discussion? Would belief in an afterlife,I.e.heaven make that person more likely to serve? Lack of the fear of dying? Would not the fear of death, without hope of an afterlife, make one not so willing to give his life? Of course, this is eliminating, jihadists, psycho killers, sadists, or the like? Or does belief in God not matter at all? Maybe it’s just duty, patriotism, pressure, etc?

    • OP I never served because my father had given me a vocation without wanting to so I work with my hands. He served and talked about it much especially when drunk like it was the best time of his life. Right after Korea and no front line stuff. My ex father in law a awarded sniper of ww2 use to talk about the war when he was drunk and did so with many tears right before he would get deathly angry usually ending with my mother in laws black eyes. She couldn’t leave him and they were married over 50 years. Frankly the whole business is heart breaking to me. Or Lonnie wounded twice in the marine base under fire for so long I can say it but not type it right now. He drinks himself to sleep every night all the rest of his life. Where is God to him. I’ll say a prayer for this cat whose leg needs eaten off. Best I can do except maybe I’ll run up to his favorite watering hole and put a 100 on his tab just because I love him. This is to you and the rest. I’m really trying to keep learning and never stop. Maybe there we have the in common. I couldn’t anymore pick up a rifle for this country or any at this age and be right with it. Rather just die. Seems I’m not that far from it anyways.

    • It might, under certain circumstances, make one less likely to serve, because of the pressures that sometimes drive people into the military. If there was a draft, say, and someone with a firm belief in resurrection found the war to be unjust, their faith might make it easier to be a conscientious objector.

  16. That Samantha Field article linked on the side is really good. Encourage everyone to read it.

  17. While we talk in generalizations, keep in mind that those who serve in the military, and their families, are real people. Holidays such as Veterans’ Day and Memorial Day mean much to those who have lost loved ones. I hadn’t thought too much about it because my father and two uncles came home from WWII, but my mother-in-law sees these days of remembrance as extremely important. Two of her brothers didn’t make it home from WWII. It is a different perspective when it is personal.

  18. My father was in graduate school in engineering during WWII. He and buddies went down to sign up for the service, because that is what you did then. His graduate research advisor learned of this and got their sign-ups rescinded in a big hurry. Later my father learned that their research had been used not only for airplane development but also in creating the bomb. It was a large part of the reason he chose to be a lifelong missionary and I was born and raised an MK. I think he always felt guilt about the part he played in the war, even unknowingly.

    I have extended family who have served in the military, but I have never understood how American Christians can glorify and lionize that service. Even the best of wars is a lesser of evils choice in a fallen world. Respect is certainly due for lessening the evil, but glory and praise should be reserved for the good, not given wantonly for a lesser evil. The best analogy I can think of is that of a surgeon who amputates a limb to save a life. We certainly are thankful for the surgeon and respect his/her skill and service, but no one in their right mind would glorify their ability to amputate a limb or the fact that it happened or was needed.

  19. Soldiers are dreamers…—Siegfried Sassoon


  20. Lots of war veterans will be in the older generations, in which most people are at least nominally Christian (with a bigger % of mainline). That alone would account for most of the difference there.

  21. Too many folks no longer remember that November 11th was the celebration of the Armistice, the end of the fighting in WWI. http://snowfar4.wix.com/1914-christmas-truce#!armistice-day/c1gn7

    My grandfather served in France in WWI; my father in China in WWII. I served in the Marine Corps in the early 1970s. And came to the place where I had to question my military position in light of being a Christian. You can read a bit of the story with the Look Inside feature on amazon https://spurgeonwarquotes.wordpress.com/2013/04/02/living-our-resurrection-faith-following-our-king/

  22. I entertained the thought of joining the Marines when I was 17 but I had other interests that I thought were more ambitious. My dad was in the Navy and my granddad also. And I met at least one guy that was in the Army and it sounded like it would be cool to join from his experience he shared with me. My only problem was dying on the battlefield or something. However if I had confidence back then that God would protect me with His angels I would have gone. Alas trying to live by the law and not knowing I was under grace messed with my confidence. If I could go back I might consider it even more seriously but I can’t really do that now unless I go in much older and accomodations were made since I lost my hearing. (Actually my dad joined when he was around 30 so I guess it’s really not too late for me barring the fact about my hearing).

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