One hymn you don’t hear much in church these days is that old favorite “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” The tune is certainly not what offends the sensitive contemporary Christian ear; rather it is the notion that a Christian can be a soldier, even metaphorically. The Church, like American society, is at a crossroads in its response to war. After centuries of responding affirmatively to the Old Testament concept (elaborated by Augustine) of the justifiable war, the Church is now more often flirting with the perennially enticing ethic of pacifism. Although often-unexamined consequences of this shift of Christian sentiment away from war and from military power are well worth our careful consideration, I am particularly interested in our willingness to skip over these primary concerns to a rejection of the agents of that power—our military men.

Vermont Royster noted in his “Thinking Things Over” column in the Wall Street Journal that at a recent three-day symposium on “the role of the military in a democracy” “there was a long list of speakers, but no one from any of the military services.” He was disturbed by this remarkable omission, largely because it was not intentional. No one had thought of asking any member of the armed forces. “There was an unconscious assumption that the military mind wasn’t worth listening to, at least on this subject.” The press and the liberal intelligentsia of America show less and less respect for the intellect and activity of men in the armed forces.

In the past, America—including its churchmen and intelligentsia—had considerable regard for military leaders, as is evidenced by elected leaders from military backgrounds. Patriotism and the notion of national defense were considered virtuous, and respect was paid those who led well and fought well. The G.I. Bill, the bonus points for G.I.s taking exams for government employment, and many other gestures made by Congress reflected a concern for the soldier and a gratitude for his sacrifices. The Viet Nam veteran is more likely to find his military service a source of embarrassment, and the career officer is more comfortable in civilian clothes. The hostility is bound to affect the willingness of the ordinary citizen to serve in the army and the potential leader to dedicate his life to military matters. No normal person wants to volunteer to serve as national scapegoat.

At two week-long seminars I attended at the Army War College, I was amazed at the openness of the military officers to the views of civilians and the care with which they analyze civilian responses to their actions. They are enormously sensitive to their stereotyping as Strangeloves. Most of the men I talked with are educated (often with a master’s degree or a doctorate); they are well read in contemporary ideas and modern history; they know what has happened to public opinion and when it happened. But they are helpless to know what they can do to refute the unspoken charge that they are monsters. Their own children often echo the hostility of the press and academia. And they are becoming lonely, defensive, alienated men. Had they now the same opportunities of scholarships to West Point or to other reputable colleges, a number would choose civilian institutions.

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Thinking to pray, I kneel
in the dark room
& raise my face to the
unseen ceiling
my bones joint
into speech
my veins fork
into silence
no light graces
my tongue’s wet wick
one by one my fingers flare
& gutter
as I clasp the space
between my palms
Thinking to pray, I crouch
by the unmade bed
& break my knuckles
across my tongue
the air in my mouth
is solid
with nothing
each tooth bursts
into a final word
& when I rise
I rise from
my skull
& find each split bone
a flowering branch

While they so often listen well to the civilian voices that control their actions and determine their strategies (the real leaders in military matters are, after all, civilian politicians), they are allowed little voice to refute their critics. And most are accustomed to this discipline of silence, breaking it only if they are ready to retire or resign.

The press, academia, and the Church, on the other hand, have taken no such vow. It is their job to speak out. But it is also their job to understand the military views at least as well as the military understand the civilian views. I have been appalled at the ease with which many educated men on our campuses have steadily withdrawn respect from the military, showing not only hostility to ROTC but a blind rejection of all things military. I have known a colleague to refuse to believe an officer even in his comments on geography—simply because he thinks all officers are liars. These men (the colonels and the generals) came into the service at a time of high patriotism. They are victims of a war they did not choose and a world they cannot alter.

The university community should show a little sympathy and “liberalize” on this issue—for the sake of the university itself and its role as forum of ideas. When we push ROTC off the campus, we lose any chance to mold future officers. The fear that the military will damage the university community does no credit to our security in liberal education. If students have the capacity to choose truth, then they should have the right to choose among as many alternatives as possible. Our colleges are not temples of virtue; they are (or should be) forums for debate. Students should be subjected to a vast array of conflicting ideas and encouraged to pursue truth freely—not to parrot our tired theories. And among those ideas is the very real one of the justifiable war. It is sheer foolishness to pretend that military might is an unmitigated evil that has never served man.

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This withdrawal of respect and support has clearly been a phenomenon of the Viet Nam years, and one we can also trace in our churches. The churches are fairly consistently proving themselves to be thermometers rather than thermostats in society, pricked to a tender conscience only at the prodding of the college community and the press. Church after church has flatly condemned our actions in Southeast Asia with little apparent understanding of the ramifications of its condemnations. Many who insist this is an “immoral war” feel it must perforce be fought by immoral or ignorant men. The officers in the higher ranks of the military—those commanding in this incredible war—cannot claim ignorance. But neither are they willing to accept blame for a war ordered by civilians and opposed by military strategists.

To pull away from military men because of an antagonism to Viet Nam—to a war, not to all wars—is to hate the tool of a civilian establishment rather than to focus on the greater evil. The military man does not have the freedom to decide when and where he will fight. His only freedom is to decide whether to become a member of the military. Once he has decided that, he may not become a conscientious objector with the same freedom as the civilian. He has not caused the war nor decided to engage in it; his job is to carry out orders. He is no more guilty—and no more innocent, for the most part—than the rest of us. He does have decisions to make that can mean life or death to others and to himself, but the overlying choice on the war is not his. War is a symptom of sin in all men, not just in the soldiers and in the politicians. Living as we do east of Eden, we have come to expect the sin of Cain. Cleansing this sin is not so simple as driving him off, for Cain lives in all of us. Our real need is the abundant grace of God, not a ritual stoning of the outcast.

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Furthermore, to shun the soldier is to imitate the university in abandoning the opportunity to influence the moral choices of our military. There are life-and-death decisions that must be made—as atrocities in Viet Nam have graphically proved—and we want decent men making these decisions. When we deny them our communion, we willingly hand this great power over to the secularists and the pragmatists.

Barbara Tuchman, who has thought long and hard about war, said recently, “Military men are people. There are good ones and bad ones, some thoughtful and intelligent, some men of courage and integrity, some slick operators and sharp practicers, some scholars and fighters, some braggarts and synthetic heroes.” Such a description could easily characterize members of any profession—and any church. Certainly the Christian, above all men, should recognize the individual differences among men. Christ loved as individuals those he called. He knew each of them as he knows each of us. It is hardly Christ-like to resort to blanket condemnations—or to any judgment of other men.

Perhaps one of the temptations to which Christians are succumbing in this rejection of military men and military might is the delusion that by denouncing sin and sinners one rids oneself of them. Even if we could stay clear of sin in such a simple way, Christians should not consider withdrawing from this tournament of the world, the flesh, and the Devil. Milton insisted, thinking of Adam’s life east of Eden, that to be human we must confront good and evil. To be true wayfaring Christians, we must not be content with cloistered virtue but must confront and overcome evil. The pose of purity implicit in our shunning of the “evildoers” and our condemnation of the evil allows the churchman the unearned luxury of avoiding confrontation with his own sin. It is after all much easier to confess the sins of one’s erring brothers. And it does place the churchmen in the awkward position of paralleling the Pharisees with their impervious holiness. Christ found them hard to convert.

Indeed, the situation is more complex than this simplistic sinning-military-innocent-civilian formula suggests. Who among us has not benefited from the battles our military have fought throughout our history? Critics now note the evils brought home by the Viet Nam war, but they ignore the benefits we have greedily reaped from wars in our comfortable, secure citadel of righteous indignation. How much of our freedom and our comfort are we now ready to relinquish? How much of our pose is hypocrisy?

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In addition, our easy platitudes encourage overgeneralization and shallow reasoning out of keeping with Christ’s own life and teachings. The church-school curriculum in my church, for example, asks the apparently rhetorical question, “Can a Christian be a soldier?” This kind of foolishness ignores the larger question of the Christian response to violence, even in self-defense, to the demands of Caesar, and his concept of the workings of God in history. Even minds as rich as Augustine’s have found such problems difficult to cope with, but many moderns think them too easy to demand consideration. We also confuse the war itself with the soldier who serves in it—for whatever private motives. Is the implication of the question about the Christian soldier that no Christian can engage in any war, or only that no Christian can engage in this war? Why then do we have the chaplains? Is the only honest Christian response to war to become a conscientious objector? We are also assuming that the role of the soldier is to kill. Thomas Carlyle insisted that his vocation was rather to die. Others have thought he was called to protect or defend us. All these are knotty problems, puzzling to the ancients, more puzzling still to us. It is the Christian’s obligation to think deeply into problems and to look first at the beam in his own eye before he considers the mote in his brother’s.

We do our church a disservice to condemn a whole body of citizens, creating in them a sense of isolation and of helplessness and of shame while flattering ourselves in our fake innocence. If we are to continue to have a military (and I suspect we are not willing to do without it yet), we as Christians should seek to create a rapport with the members of that group for our own sakes as well as theirs. It is certainly in our own best interest to work for responsible, moral, Christ-like leaders. There is a real danger in driving out of the armed services those who are reluctant to fight—and those who want to be a respected part of the community; we don’t want to be left with an army of muscle-flexing killers, a subsidized Mafia for our defense. If we insist on treating the members of the armed services as outcasts and scapegoats, we shall create monsters. We would pray first that God would deliver us from violence—our own and that of others. But if we must fight wars in our fallen world, God grant that we have Christian leaders!

George M. Marsden is associate professor of history at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has the Ph.D. (Yale University) and has written “The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience.”

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