Saturday, March 29, 2003

In Sunday's NYTimes magazine:

Garry Wills on religiosity and wartime leaders,

There is ample precedent for such official religiosity in time of war. It was in the period of the cold war with what President Truman always called ''godless Communism'' that ''under God'' was added to the Pledge of Allegiance. It was in World War II that ''God Bless America'' became the country's unofficial anthem. Of World War I, President Wilson said that it showed America marching to heights ''upon which there rests nothing but the pure light of the justice of God,'' reflecting the ''glimmer of light which came at Calvary, that first dawn which came with the Christian era.'' It was in the Civil War that ''The Battle Hymn of the Republic'' was composed, with its echoes of Isaiah 63:3 and Revelation 14:20: ''He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.'' It was in the War of 1812 that Francis Scott Key wrote the words of our official anthem: ''Praise the Pow'r that has made and preserv'd us a nation. Then conquer we must when our cause is just.'' It was during New England's conflict with Native Americans, culminating in King Philip's war, that the jeremiad became a popular sermon form. The sufferings of the colonists were seen as a punishment for sin, so preachers had to rise like Jeremiah to rebuke the people for their falling off from God.

The jeremiad was a sturdy plant, with a long life ahead of it. It is the form of Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address. The nation as a whole was complicit in the sin of slavery, so God is just exacting the penalty of that sin, proportioning blood spilt by soldiers' bayonets to that shed by slavemasters' whips. A solidarity in sin made the punishment communal, uniting the nation in the sufferings it had brought upon itself. Lincoln sealed the argument by quoting Psalm 19: ''The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.''

Lincoln did not take the next logical step, saying that solidarity in offending God could only be countered by solidarity in worshiping him, but others have been quick and resolute in taking that step. The dynamics of the jeremiad move from rebuke to reform, from communal taint to communal repristinization. The first masters of the jeremiad form said that the purity of worship had been lost. Membership in the churches had fallen off, and those who were members had become lukewarm. The only remedy was better recruitment of new members (by way of preaching and example) and greater zeal in those who were already members.

And after some more historical material, Wills takes on our friend Rod Dreher:

The afflatus of becoming visible saints is intoxicating. It allows one to have great disdain for the manifest sinners who oppose our saintly will. This applies not only to outright enemies but to those (like the French) who do not join our crusade and even to those who dare criticize it. Rod Dreher, a senior writer at National Review, says that clergymen who oppose the war are spiritually disarming us and that military chaplains supporting the war should be heeded, not ''bishops in well-appointed chanceries and pastors sitting in suburban middle-class comfort.'' Dreher, a Catholic convert, must think the pope is one of those cushy bishops, as opposed to the hard-bitten military chaplains who know what God and the devil are up to. We should learn from the ''moral realism'' of soldier-priests, who are ''warriors for justice,'' and not heed ''the effete sentimentality you find among so many clergymen today.'' The priests who do not bow to the War God are, in a chaplain's words that Dreher quotes with approval, reinforcers of the notion that ''religion is for wimps, for prissy-pants, for frilly-suited morons.'' This is what used to be called ''muscular Christianity,'' and Dreher thinks it is the only authentic form of his faith:

''As men and women of faith deliberate the morality of war with Iraq, it is a travesty that more of them haven't had the perspective of military chaplains, that virtually the only religious voices heard in the public square are coming from the antiwar corner. The divide between military and civilian clergy over the Iraq war is philosophically very deep. It cuts to the core of one's belief in evil. . . . Some of the chaplains say the failure of contemporary American society to grasp the true nature of the evil we face means the country is spiritually unprepared for war and its sacrifices.''

Dreher has a view of military chaplains as moral mentors that is quite different from that of Madison, who wrote: ''Look thro' the armies and navies of the world, and say whether, in the appointment of their ministers of religion, the spiritual interests of the flocks or the temporal interests of the shepherds be most in view.'' Madison was aware that most nations have made an instrumental use of God (as the endorser of secular policy) and that this dishonors God rather than honors him. It recruits him to secular purpose and literally ''takes the Lord's name in vain.'' Madison would allow men in danger of death to have chaplains of their own denominations near them if financed by their own denominations. But that is different from putting ministers in government uniform, under government discipline. Dreher tells us, with approval, that the military controls the chaplains and must remove any who show doubt about the war as a danger to ''morale.'' Religion is harnessed to political purpose and is not freely exercised if it does not serve that purpose. That is just the ''cognizance'' of religion Madison called a usurpation by the state.



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