Philip Giraldi has provided an important but somewhat confused post for The American Conservative on religiosity and the U.S. military. While agreeing strongly with his central concern, I would like to offer a corrective to what I see as some of his more confused statements.
First, Giraldi’s introductory point is on target. He states the well-known correlation between American Evangelicalism and enthusiasm for our modern overseas wars:
The connection between America’s wars in the Middle East—and its wars more generally—with the more fundamentalist forms of Christianity in the United States is striking. Opinion polls suggest that the more religiously conservative one is, the more one will support overseas wars or even what many might describe as war crimes. Fully 60 percent of self-described evangelicals supported torturing suspected terrorists in 2009, for example.
And I agree with Giraldi that this war-lust does not line up with biblical Christianity:
That is somewhat puzzling, as Christianity is, if anything, a religion of peace that only reluctantly embraced a “just war” concept that was deliberately and cautiously evolved to permit Christians—under very limited circumstances of imminent threat—to fight to defend themselves.
Further, as I point out in Restoring America and The Bible and War in America, Giraldi notes that some of this cognitive dissonance with Christian ethics derives from widespread fundamentalist “Left Behind” eschatology and Last Days Madness:
To be sure, some Christian conservatives who might be described as Armageddonists regard America’s Asian wars as part and parcel of the precursor events that will lead to the Second Coming of Christ, which they eagerly look forward to.
But then the train gets off the tracks quickly when Giraldi characterizes these misguided crusaders as fixated on the Old Testament but not the New:
Also, a non-interventionist friend of mine who comes from a religiously conservative background explained to me how the contradiction partly derives from the fact that many evangelical Christians hardly relate to the New Testament at all. While they can recite scripture and verse coming from the Old Testament, they are frequently only marginally conversant with the numerous episodes in the New Testament that attest to Jesus’s extolling the virtues of peacemaking and loving one’s neighbor. If true, that means that many evangelicals are much more imbued with the values of an eye-for-an-eye or smiting Philistines than they are with the Sermon on the Mount.
There is so much wrong with this paragraph it could require a book, but I’ll be brief. First, this reveals a fundamentally misguided understanding of “eye-for-an-eye”—which, admittedly, is not uncommon on both sides. We should not understand it in the offensive sense of revenge. Rather, it was an ancient way of saying “the punishment must fit the crime”—something from which our modern justice systems could profit. Rather than anything inequitable or barbaric, “eye-for-an-eye” was a check on government power and personal vengeance. In a world where arbitrary penalties could mean death, dismemberment, or lifetime enslavement for relatively minor offenses, the Old Testament rule was a measure of mercy and equity.
And that brings me to my real issue: it may be the case that some soldiers go around touting Old Testament verses while totally ignorant of the New Testament, but that sounds very strange to me. Considering that the greatest driving factor in the religious fervor behind these wars in particular has been eschatological, one might expect to hear from Ezekiel or Daniel, but also just as much if not more from Revelation, 2 Peter, Jude, or 1 and 2 Thessalonians—and indeed we do.
More to the point, I wish this was the case! I wish every soldier would “recite scripture and verse coming from the Old Testament”! For it is in the Old Testament, as I (and other reconstructionists, such as Greg Bahnsen) have labored to show, that the biblical ethic forbids wars of interventionism, imperialism, standing armies, etc.
The New Testament may speak of peace, but it actually gives less imperative for checking military power than does the Old. In fact, the sparse treatment of military power in the New Testament comes only in passing and could possibly be construed a tacit approval of some of it (see Luke 3:14 for example).
The Old Testament on the other hand gives those fundamental laws for executive power and for warfare and the military in Deuteronomy 17 and 20 which I have rehearsed in greater detail previously. There is no question what they mean.
On top of those explicit parts of the Pentateuch, we also have explicit prophecies of world peace as our vision and mission in the Old Testament. Isaiah 2:1–4 comes to mind. That whole thing about beating sword into ploughshares was not invented by the UN after all. Nor was it born in the NT.
Further, even some of the meekest parts of Jesus’ vision of peace come from the Old Testament. Giraldi mentions the Sermon on the Mount in contradistinction to the Old Testament ethic, but he does not seem to be aware that parts of the Sermon on the Mount are verbatim quotations from the Old Testament. The meek inheriting the earth? Yeah, that’s Psalm 37:11. The poor in spirit? Yeah, that’s Isaiah 61:1 and 66:2.
Even Mr. Giraldi’s own evidence contradicts his claim. He relates how “the shock of 9/11 let the evangelical genie out of the bottle in anticipation of the conflict of civilizations that some Armageddonists were welcoming, with the Pentagon even livening up its daily Worldwide Intelligence Update by using biblical verses as captions for war images.” But just click through that link and you’ll see that two of the three “biblical verses” referenced there are from the New Testament: Ephesians and Colossians. That hardly helps Giraldi’s characterization.
And common sense of anyone modestly familiar with American evangelicals will render suspect the statement “many evangelical Christians hardly relate to the New Testament at all.” That certainly comes as a surprise to the Theonomy and Christian Reconstruction movement, which has championed Old Testament ethics against evangelicals for forty years only to be met with the refrain, “That’s the Old Testament! We’re under grace not law.”
But like I said, oh how I wish Giraldi were right! I wish more soldiers and officials did in fact study the Old Testament view of warfare and the military. More of them would resign their posts, and more would demand a truly defensive militia system. Isaiah would seem less utopian if we took Deuteronomy more seriously.
And if we reached such a point of advanced spirituality, Giraldi’s main point—with which I agree—would have real biblical teeth:
That the United States military appears to be increasingly a professional force that has few links to the general population is by itself disturbing. That it also might be developing a warrior class ethos that includes a certain kind of evangelical religiosity as a key element only serves to increase the distance between soldiers and most civilians, apart from the constitutional issues that it raises.
As the saying goes, when tyranny comes to America, it will be wrapped in a flag and waving a cross. Mr. Giraldi’s concern in this regard is very real. But the longer we refuse to take Old Testament law seriously, the more in danger of it we are—indeed, the more even our most cherished religious compatriots are leading us headlong into it while denying it will ever happen.