There have been two "Great Awakenings" in America since the signing of our Constitution in 1787, a document with only one mention of religion until December 1791 when the first ten amendments were approved and the first of these declared: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...." Even the passage in the body of the Constitution -- in Article VI -- contains "negative" wording, much like the First Amendment: "...no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification for any Office or public Trust under the United States."
It is generally agreed that without the first ten amendments -- referred to popularly as "The Bill of Rights" -- the then-existent states would not have ratified the Constitution. Recent statements such as that of former U.S. Attorney General William Barr that these amendments were not necessary to the Constitution reveal a truly deficient sense of America's history in general and of the Constitution and the deliberations that accompanied its ratification in particular. Or, far more likely the case, a perverted sense of our history, twisted in accordance with present-day political proclivities.
One of the potential developments the Framers in 1787 and their colleagues in later ratification deliberations sought to prevent was a European-type state religion -- the Church of England, for example, or in other countries like France, state-supported Catholicism. Another was state interference in the practice of other religions than Christianity, or in the belief in no supreme being at all. In short, the Framers intended with this first amendment's words about religion to afford Americans freedom of religion. There are thus no Constitutional grounds whatsoever for declaring America "a Christian nation". In fact, quite the opposite. A nation where freedom of religion is the rule, is far more descriptive and accurate.
This fourth religious revival is in part responsible for some of the extremists in today's U.S. Armed Forces, perhaps even for one or two of those at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021.
Yet it is inarguable that the majority of Americans at the time of the founding were Christians, some of course in name only, others very solidly so. After all, our main provider, so to speak, was Great Britain, where the Anglican Church held great sway. Indeed, one reason for which some Britons -- as well as other Europeans -- left their country was religious persecution. They wanted freedom to practice the religion of their choice, or no religion at all in some cases (Tom Paine, for example, the author of Common Sense, as important a stimulus to Revolutionary War American soldiers as George Washington's leadership).
Today, the American tapestry is variegated, much more than ever before in fact. Jews, Muslims, agnostics, atheists, Zoroastrians, Mormons, Hindus, Buddhists, and a host of others make up our citizenry. Yet that old fundamentalist Christian cri d'coeur is still strong. And it has roots other than the circumstances prevailing at the Founding.
There have been three pronounced Christian religious revival periods in America's colonial and national periods, called by historians "The First Great Awakening" (circa 1730 - 1775), "The Second Great Awakening" (circa 1790 - 1840), and the Third Great Awakening (circa 1850 - 1920). Some religious historians and others claim a Fourth period, somewhere in the middle of the 20th Century. If this latter group is onto something, they were a bit premature. The Fourth is happening today and it's an estimate at best when it started but nothing but certain that it is in full swing today in 2021.
This fourth religious revival is in part responsible for some of the extremists in today's U.S. Armed Forces -- active duty, National Guard, and Reserves -- perhaps even for one or two of those at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021.
The U.S. South has always had a share, often the lion's share, of such Fundamentalist Christians and does so as well today. Thus when Alabama, with five million population, provides as many Army troops as the metropolises of New York, Chicago and Los Angeles combined, with aggregate population of more than 30 million, we can understand how such Fundamentalists might come to proliferate in the military. Fully forty percent of today's U.S. Army comes from seven states and they are all states of the old Confederacy. This is not to claim that the South is the sole home of Fundamentalist Christians; quite the contrary: the forty million or so of the 100 million Evangelicals who are Fundamentalists, come from all over the country. For many reasons, they have a predilection for military service.
Exacerbating this set of circumstances is the evolved nature of the military's Chaplain Corps. Chaplains in times past came mainly from what are called "the mainline Christian religions" -- Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Catholics, and so on. Rabbis too came to the chaplaincy from both Orthodox and Reformed Jewish origins. Today, the predominant sources of chaplains are the fundamentalist churches and strains of Christianity and Judaism. This is why we see "Soldiers for Jesus" banners, and Bible verses engraved on rifles, dog tags, and other military arms and materiel, and USAF Academy sports locker rooms with potently religious slogans and banners installed to "inspire the troops" -- all clear violations of Service regulations. One chaplain even asserted that soldiers did not owe their allegiance to the Constitution but to Jesus.
Many senior military officers turn a blind eye to such infractions either because they are sympathetic with the fundamentalist beliefs, or they are wary of disturbing what they believe to be sacrosanct in their leaders' eyes, or they do not want to influence adversely the recruitment of additional troops at a time of extreme difficulty in finding adequate numbers for the All-Volunteer military. As an advisory board member for the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, I'm kept informed about that civil rights group's protests of such chaplains' actions as well as the unconstitutional actions of far too many senior ranking, non-chaplain line officers and NCOs -- actions that are lethal to the good order, morale, discipline and unit cohesion of military units.
Likewise, as a member of the All-Volunteer Force Forum, I am deeply aware of the ethical, moral, financial, resilience, and recruiting challenges confronting that Force. It is too small, it is unethical (less than one percent of America bleeding and dying for the other 99%), it is breaking the bank with its exorbitant costs, it's widening the civil-military gap, and it has yet to win a war.
But at day's end, America's military is what the American people want and are willing to fund. Still, the people should know what they're getting for their tax dollars. One negative outcome of the religious developments just elaborated is that they might be getting good killers for the state in time of war, but they are probably not getting good citizens for the democracy to which these troops will return when the killing's done.
Military Religious Freedom Foundation